Reviewed by Bert Gangl
We Belong to Heaven by John Mandeville
"Those who are able appreciate the intrinsic merits of catchy, well-written pop/rock, on the other hand, should find Mandeville's freshman project very much to their liking."
To say that the '90s were good to John Mandeville would be something of an understatement. During that decade he managed to pull down steady employment as a songwriter for top-selling Christian inspirational pop artists including Clay Crosse, 4Him and Philips, Craig & Dean. He penned a veritable slew of Top Ten singles, including chart-topping hits for the likes of Tammy Trent, Avalon and Point of Grace. And, to top it all off, his compositions regularly earned Dove Award nominations for Song of the Year. All of this, together with the urging of several household-name artists in the secular music camp, spurred him to put up the lion's share of his worldly goods as collateral against a breakout mainstream career that most of those closest to him considered all but a given.
As is so often the case, though, the predicted triumph never materialized and Mandeville's all-consuming pursuit of success wound up leading to financial devastation, a series of unhealthy addictions and the near dissolution of his marriage. Given the trying circumstances that have preceded its creation, it hardly comes as a surprise that a considerable portion of Mandeville's solo debut, We Belong to Heaven, is dedicated to chronicling his struggles and downfall. "Who Do You Say I Am" (And I fight to win, Lord/ But sometimes I lose/ The war for my heart/ And the passions I choose) and the title cut detail the dangers of focusing on the things of the world rather than God. Others, such as "You're the Only One" (For so many years I wandered blindly/ Followed anyone who'd take my hand/ Down the path of fools you came to find me/ A desperate and broken man), are more specific in their recounting of Mandeville's path to monetary and emotional ruin.
As engaging as such inward-looking fare is, Mandeville is careful to keep the proceedings from racing down the slippery slope of despondent self-indulgence by lacing his songs of introspection and regret with equal measures of illumination, resolve and hope. "Selah" (You are mystery/ We define/ You're twenty-twenty/ And we're all blind) paints a succinct, yet thoroughly convincing, contrast between the inherent limitations of the human condition and the all-knowing nature of God. "You Are" and "Fire" (You are my peace/ While the war is raging/ You prepare a table/ And sit me down) find Mandeville wisely taking the next step and calling out for divine assistance. Most impressive, though, are tracks like "You Alone" (You alone are faithful/ You alone are my peace/ You alone are mighty/ And you alone are my king), which offer moving expressions of worship and praise to the One who has heard his petitions.
Of course, this skillful word use is more or less a moot point if it isn't tied to musically engaging material. Fortunately for all concerned, Mandeville is every bit as proficient with hook and melody as he is with his subjects and verbs. "Glorify" marries its engaging, heart-laid-bare lyrical approach to a beautiful, gently-loping musical accompaniment. Just as imposing is "You Are," an ethereal, praise-oriented piece buoyed by perfectly-portioned electronic percussion. The bare-bones instrumental backing of "You Alone" renders the austere piece one of Belong's most effective showcases for Mandeville's smooth, emotive voice. And "You're the Only One," with its barreling rhythm, yearning vocals and sweeping melody line, could well be used as a blueprint for artists wanting to learn how to write a great pop song.
Mandeville does fall victim to
the occasional lyrical cliché, as
entries like "I Want What You Want" (Your faithfulness is like
the rain/ Through the laughter and the pain) prove. And the overly listless
character of "You Love Me" and the ironically titled "Fire" help
render much of the last quarter of the album a bit too relaxed for its own
good. That said, Mandeville is in peak form, word wise, for the better part
of the proceedings, turning in lyrics that are literate, insightful and unique.
And he goes out on a decidedly high musical note with "Free," a
sublimely intimate piece that evokes images of a concert performer in an
empty auditorium lifting a simple song of gratitude to his deliverer after
everyone in the crowd and crew have long since departed. Listeners who tend
to migrate to the hard rock or alternative camps may want to approach the
Belong record with a measure of caution. Those who are able appreciate the
intrinsic merits of catchy, well-written pop/rock, on the other hand, should
find Mandeville's freshman project very much to their liking.
Bert Gangl was formally introduced to the wonderful world of Christian music by his baby brother as the two were winding their way through Western Tennessee in the family automobile. Ever intent on proving that not all Christian artists were knock-offs of their mainstream counterparts, the younger Gangl duly inserted his newly-purchased copy of White Heart's Freedom into the waiting car tape player and the rest, as they say, is history. In the twenty years that have transpired since that time, Bert has amassed a sizeable CCM album collection of his own and has gone on to write reviews for a range of music-related sites including ChristRock , The Phantom Tollbooth, inReview and The All-Music Guide. He currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife and daughter.