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Listener challenge

T Bone Burnett (Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times/Redux)

Listener challenge

The Invisible Light carries with it a lot of required reading

A lot of learning may not be as dangerous as a little learning, but in the case of The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space (Verve)—the experimental new album by T Bone Burnett, Jay Bellerose, and Keefus Ciancia—it can certainly be prohibitive.

Not that The Invisible Light, taken simply as an audio artifact, won’t strike listeners as plenty prohibitive already. How often does one encounter an eight-minute piece (“A Man Without a Country”) that ends with 3½ minutes of near silence? Or a “song” (“Itopia Chant”) that’s four seconds long? Or a steady stream of couplets decrying digital-age dehumanization, recited by Burnett amid a mostly amelodic mixture of tribal drumbeats and dystopian sound effects?

Still, it’s the clearing of the album’s intellectual underbrush that will pose the biggest challenge. The term “Invisible Light,” for instance, comes from T.S. Eliot’s choruses from The Rock, wherein it’s used (interchangeably with “Light Invisible”) as a name for God. The term “Acoustic Space,” meanwhile, refers to holistic, multi-sensory experiences and comes from the media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

The required reading doesn’t stop there. The track “Being There” presumes familiarity not only with the Jerzy Kosinski novella of the same name (which, in mentioning TV over 100 times, reinforces Burnett’s apocalyptic Luddism) but also with “Ten Figures,” a track from the debut album of Burnett’s 1970s trio the Alpha Band (from which “Being There” takes the line that begins “PR in excess …”).

But those who meet The Invisible Light on its own terms will be rewarded. The warning in “To Beat the Devil” that “nothing that he does will last” is also a promise. And in both “Being There” and “A Man Without a Country,” an angel appears, and his message in each case is “Be not afraid.” 

The allusions are clearly to Luke 2 and Matthew 28. So, yep, another reading assignment. But at least it’s one whose profitability for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness is beyond dispute.

Spiritual oasis

The critic Robert Christgau once referred to T Bone Burnett as a “humble man with a proud guitar.” It’s a description equally appropriate to the CCM guitar hero Phil Keaggy.

Following on the heels of The Bucket List, Keaggy’s January project with Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta, are two more new collaborations: Illumination (Strobie) with the producer-musician Rex Paul (Schnelle) and Cappadocia (Ark), his third with the Christian contemplative-music instrumentalist Jeff Johnson.

Illumination finds Keaggy and Paul revisiting four vintage Keaggy deep cuts—the Town to Town highlights “Full Circle” and “Let Everything Else Go” among them—and minting seven others in a sleek, hard-rock style that owes its punch as much to the record’s uncredited drumming as it does to the credited guitars and vocals meshing atop it.  

With Cappadocia, on the other hand, Keaggy and Johnson have crafted eight nonverbal, gently unfolding pieces rooted in the musicians’ quietly sympathetic musicality and in their appreciation of the ancient theologians commonly known as the “Church Fathers.” 

That appreciation is most evident in “Trinity,” the title of which refers to the fourth-century Cappadocian Bishop Gregory of Nyssa’s area of theological specialization. But, its creedal underpinnings notwithstanding (other titles: “Dove Visions,” “Parousia [A Presence]”), Cappadocia is neither academic nor dry. Rather, it’s a 52-minute evocation of a spiritual oasis.

In short, Cappadocia and Illumination are as different from each other as they are from The Bucket List. They’re also proof that, two years shy of threescore and 10, Keaggy is making some of the richest and most varied recordings of his long and prolific career. —A.O.