The easy and weasely way out of this quandary is to demure that all of the albums are the best. This may be true when compared with the offerings of any other musical artist, but surely, among the best in the world, there is the best of the best. The first album I would like to offer up for consideration of that honor is 1997's Feel Free.
The first time I put Feel Free into the computer and the vibrant electric guitar of "Do What You Do" blared out of the speakers, I had to turn the volume down. What was this? I wondered at the complete divergence from the laid-back folksy feel of Carolyn's debut album, I Can Hear You. Even though I was taken aback, I kept listening and started grooving, and then I realized, "Hey! I'm really digging this!"
And it's continued that way for the past seven years.
There is no collection of songs anywhere that fills me with more unadulterated joy than Feel Free. Just look at the cover, first of all. The bright, splashy reds and oranges, the free-hand font of the title letters, the open birdcage, and Carolyn herself, staring out with a hard-core rock star gaze. You just know, by taking all these elements in, that you are in for a world of fun. And the album is, over all, LOUD. It's electric, not only in that it uses more electric guitar riffs than any other Arends album I can think of, but just in the feel of the songs. Here's a warning: If you listen to this in your automobile, you will car-dance. You cannot keep from twisting your body in clumsy obedience to the pulsating beat of the songs.
This is an album, as the title suggests, about liberation.
So, it starts with "Do What You Do." If you are a working girl in the thrilling avenue of retail, as was I, you will feel kinship with the subject of this song. "She's on the clock, but she doesn't seem to mind. Whatever matters, she always finds the time. She laughs out loud when it's funny, and when it's not she sighs." Of course, the priceless nuggets in Carolyn Arends's creations are so often found in the middle bridge section. In this case it is: "She's not afraid to live this life, she says it's not like rolling dice. It's in the hands of God so why not do what you do like you know what you're doing . . ."
Then comes the now-classic, "New Year's Day." Who cannot relate to the idea of filling up diaries with all of the New Year resolutions that are kept until January 2? How much more freeing to remember that the Lord's mercies are new every morning, and "every day is New Year's Day -- hey, hey!" Here's your magic bridge moment: "Every day is one more chance to start all over; one more chance to change and grow; one more chance to grab a hold of grace and never let it go." Every Carolyn Arends fan who read that is now improvising the driving guitar that comes in after those lines -- dun-da-da-dun-da-da-dun-da-da-da-da-da-da-dun . . .
I really like the title track of the album, "Feel Free." Everyone should have a friend with whom they "feel free to laugh or cry . . . to wonder why . . . to dance or grieve . . . " and who lets them know that "you are safe when you're with me." Carolyn does some unusual vocal stuff with this song, especially at the end.
The first break from the rocking sound comes with the ballad, "There You Are." If you've ever felt disappointed that you've never had a burning bush come and talk to you, only to realize that in the quiet times you can hear a still small voice, then you will relate to this song. My favorite line is, "I was waiting for a miracle and hoping for a sign, as if each breath I take is not a gift." This idea of the intrinsic mystery of breath appears again later in the album.
"This I Know" has a rather heavy arrangement for such a light-heartedly simple premise of a song. She re-recorded it later for a "best of" album with a lighter sound. But, since this is the rock star album, it's fun to hear the original incarnation. My husband really appreciates the stripped down message of the song, as expressed in the chorus: "Hope and love make a life worth living. Lack thereof makes a man grow old. God is good, yeah, and Jesus loves me. This I know." When you get down to the bare bones of living, it so often comes down to a purity like this one, doesn't it? Why do we make life more complicated than it should be?
"Big Deal" is one of those songs that has actually helped me break mental paralysis when facing a daunting task. I tend to be one of those people who takes everything to heart and beats myself up when I do not live up to my own (unrealistic) expectations. This song, which is gently humorous, reminds me that no, "I won't be the first to mess things up," and I'll indeed "get it right someday."
I think that "Last Thursday" is one of the more initially under-appreciated songs on the album. At least it was for me. I enjoyed the song on a listening level before I really stopped to think about the lyrics. Then, one day at the bookstore (the "retail job" previously mentioned) I was shelving in the "Self Improvement" section. The lyrics of "Last Thursday" came flooding into my mind: "You see, I've read a thousand pages of how to help myself to a thousand different ways to perfect mental health. And I swear I've done them all and I'm still needing something else, and I think you are, too." Aha! Looking at row upon row of books intended to improve the human condition when there is no way that we can save ourselves filled me with a new and profound admiration for the courage it took for Carolyn to write this song. We so want to believe that there is a way we can do it without Jesus, but we cannot. And admitting that weakness is the first step to His strength. Again, there is a beautiful bridge that sums up the song: "And further more I still believe in what I cannot see or touch. Crazy things like dreams and prayer and faith and hope and love. And I know a life without these things is not a life at all. So you can call it sanity, but then you'll have to call me crazy." We want to divorce these necessary elements of the human experience from our Creator and attempt to find that wholeness within ourselves -- to be "spiritual" without the Holy Spirit -- but we just cannot save ourselves.
Even if every other song on this album were crap (which, clearly, they are not), I might still think Feel Free the best album in the world for this next song on the tracks list, "Do We Dare." I am never shy in saying that I think this is the best song ever written. The ideas in this song are so big and breath-taking, and yet the song is accessible and deceptively simple. You could write a book about the ideas in this song -- they could be extrapolated into a doctoral thesis -- and yet the wordcraft is so eloquent that Carolyn wrote everything that really needs to be said into a song barely over four minutes in length. It is difficult for me even to write about this song, because it is so meaningful to me. I start to tear up simply typing about it. I think that that is because it touches some foundational yearning of the human spirit -- something that was breathed into the clay at the beginning of time from the very mouth of God and has never left us. Carolyn Arends borrowed the initial idea from Madeleine L'Engle's book, Walking on Water, and turned a soul-stinging suggestion into, what I've come to believe is, a revelation of Spirit. L'Engle wrote: "In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, amongst the stars" (p. 57). "Do We Dare" is a song about being healed from this corruption of the soul, about regaining that which we have lost so long ago that we've forgotten we ever had it. It is about how much courage it takes, how much of an act of daring it is, to regain that ground -- to free ourselves to react to the world with the innocence and imagination of children while being the broken-hearted adults we are. It is so many amazing whispers of the Divine spilling into our ears through lovely melody and charming voice -- the song is one of those little love letters from God that He sent to the world through the human instrument. I know I am not doing the song justice by these confused babblings of admiration. Hear it yourself. Seek it out and let it seep into your soul. If you've heard it before, listen to it again. It can not be heard too often. It is a work of deepest art and deepest truth. Here is Carolyn's trademark piercing bridge: "We are battered and torn from the day we are born in a world that has blinded and bound us. Is it any surprise we don't open our eyes to the truth that's disguised all around us?"
After listening to "Do We Dare," it is heartening to wipe away your tears and smile at the love song that next greets you. "Good Thing Going" is a sweet ode to Carolyn's husband of more than fifteen years (seven, when this album was released -- "Seven years, no itch," according to the liner notes). "How could anybody turn my head when my heart's forever lost to you? How could I fall into another's arms when I've fallen so deep into a love so true?" This is song will reverberate with anyone who's had the privilege and blessing of marrying his or her best friend.
The last song is a prayer. "Father, Thy Will Be Done" is about surrender to God, in times both good and bad -- "when I'm walking in the light; when my heart is black as night; when You give what I desire; when You take me through the fire." There is freedom to live in letting go and trusting in the Lord's will. Feel Free is an album whose over-riding theme is that of liberty. Not political liberty, but that deeper liberty -- the freedom of Christ, the freedom of love, the freedom of friendship.
Rarely has an artist achieved such a balance of meaningful lyrics and uplifting melody. Feel Free will delight beyond the thousandth spin in your CD player. Carolyn is so good at writing out the essence of questions, mysteries, yearnings, and the unchangeable truths that, ultimately, bring hope. This album, though, goes even a step beyond the amazing songwriting and musical artistry to reveal a freshness and fun that makes your soul soar. My first nomination for best album, then, is 1997's Feel Free -- you'll feel free, indeed.