The Book of the World by Christine Hand: an Album Review
This week I have the privilege of reviewing the latest album from TTC’s very own Dr. Christine Hand Jones. I have known Christine for nearly 20 years now and have had a number of opportunities (though not as many as I would have liked) to see her perform live. Her work is innovative, technically excellent, and always uplifting.
I am not simply writing about Christine’s album because she is a friend or a contributor to TTC. I am writing about her music because it is artistically excellent. Her work deserves more than a cursory listen. With each new venture through the album, we are consistently drawn deeper into the artist’s overarching musical and lyrical themes.
The Book of the World is the 2018 follow-up full-length album to the 2011 EP Girl on a String. It introduces listeners to a mature artist whose thoughtful lyrics develop a worldview that carries the album track by track from start to completion. Hand’s masterful composition and musicianship transport us into each song’s story, inviting us to share experiences, struggles, and joys.
The music is decidedly folk-rock-gospel. The keyboards, played primarily by Christine’s father, Ed Hand, move the guitars and mandolin beyond traditional folk, as do Christine’s lyrics and vocals, which are laced with spiritual themes and tones. It’s easy to hear the influences of singer-songwriter legends Carole King and Bob Dylan, but Hand is an artist in her own right who bridges multiple genres in an intelligent yet organic way, creating a sound that delivers ecstasy for the ears, healing for the heart, and satisfaction for the soul.
The album presents an impressive conceptual arc, smoothly moving from one track to the next both musically and thematically. Each song’s themes and motifs build upon one another, linking love, life, loss, doubt and faith all together in a cohesive, holistic experience.
The first track, “Nothing Else Matters,” opens with a strong message that ushers listeners into the coming of the King. Hand re-contextualizes 1 Corinthians 13 by drawing it down from the isolated mountaintop of wedding vows and Valentine’s sermons and reconnecting the familiar passage to both the eternal and the everyday: “When the last silence falls and the bright trumpet calls… Nothing else matters to learn… Nothing else matters to do. There’ll still be me and you. Even if our precious truths are torn and tattered. Love will still be love. Love will still be love. Love will still be love… nothing else matters.”
This transitions brightly into “Glorious Texas Spring,” a song that brings with it a flood of lyrical poetry often unseen in music today. Hand’s soulful gospel vocals really show out here. “Texas Spring” is a rapturous reminder that God is in control of the world he created and that we have a place in that world; that the world around us shapes who we are, but also points us to our Creator. It’s a reminder that the beauty and new life of earthly spring is but a shadow of the Eternal Spring to come.
This rapture is followed by the haunting power of “Ezekiel,” a Dylan-inspired collision of words and imagery propelled on, on, on by driving, rhythmic instrumentation. In this track, like the others in the album that come more directly from scripture, Hand reintroduces us to, and helps clarify, biblical texts both familiar and strange with innovative lyrics and evocative musical composition.
The album then slows to catch its breath (and let us catch ours) with “You’re Not Alone.” “Not Alone” reminds us of just that. We are not alone. Even in, especially in, our loneliest and darkest hours. Hand’s voice breaks in beautiful, heart-wrenching desperation — “Don’t drive off tonight in the pouring rain. Don’t give yourself up to the storm. You’re not the last one you will wreck tonight.” — begging us to hear: “you’re not alone; you’re not alone; you’re not alone.”
It’s probably good we have the refrain from “You’re Not Alone” to lean on going into the album’s Dylan cover, “It’s all Over Now, Baby Blue.” Full of apocalyptic images, “Baby Blue” is a song about new beginnings, albeit beginnings that come from the end of other things — a theme we’ll see picked up again in “The Ruins.” It’s a song about entering into a new maturity or a coming of age; it’s an apt choice for this album. While staying true to the song’s essential folk vibe and melody, Hand modernizes the classic with a more cogent and dynamic arrangement led by the artist’s powerhouse vocals.
The wastelands evoked by Dylan show up again in “Psalm 120.” The Book of the World includes King David’s first and second Psalms of Ascent and arranges a nearly seamless but dynamic transition between them that helps us to see the two psalms more like a two-part poem, a call and response. “Psalm 120” employs an upbeat tempo, electric guitar solos from Christine’s husband, Adam, and modulated keyboards to evoke the psalmist’s rocky circumstances as he calls out to God in distress. It joins us in those bleak seasons of spiritual uncertainty and loneliness when we wonder whether God will even respond at all. “Psalm 121” reminds us he will. It slows us back down and carries us into the calm at the center of God’s presence.
Based on the twin redemption stories of Nehemiah and the Beatitudes, “The Ruins” continues to explore and expound upon the themes introduced throughout this album. The song’s lively tempo and melody dance us through the ruins, reminding us that in God’s hands, “the rubble of our broken dreams” — our struggles, our failings, our ruins — can be reshaped and repurposed; rebuilt. Just like Nehemiah, our “ruins are calling [us] back Home,” but they also remind us to mourn, to comfort, and to seek meekness in the meantime. Our broken dreams, our bad decisions, our wrecked lives help shape us into who we are and have the potential to show us how we have grown.
The last two songs, “Incarnation” and “Simple Life” express two sides of the same coin: the fullness of life in communion. “Incarnation” showcases the ways we encounter God through the people he has placed in our lives who love us at our worst, those who are physically there for us, even when we are weak or tired or sick, when there’s “too much bite in [our] kiss,” we “try to speak but… only hiss.” It’s about the people in our lives who love us when we’re least lovable. Those who love us like God loves us. Tangibly and unconditionally.
Book of the World concludes with “Simple Life,” a song that shows us the importance of finding both value and contentment in who we are and what we do. It’s “a song about what it looks like when two introverts get married,” the artist playfully confesses in live performances. But its message resonates with introverts and extraverts and everyone in between. For it is profoundly unembarrassed by the simple things that embody the good life, the life we as Christians are called to live here on Earth.
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 calls Christians to lead simple lives: enjoying our work and building report with those around us. This album embodies precisely that.
The Book of the World teaches us to find contentment in the simple things of life and highlights how God is in control of the world he has created, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Everything around us — people, nature, scripture, music, books — points us to the Lord, our hope and our salvation. We have a new beginning in Christ when we come to him in faith, and life in Christ is full of new beginnings as we mature and grow.
I can’t recommend this album enough. There are about ten different ways to buy or stream the digital album. Or head over to CD Baby to grab a physical copy.