The assortment of hopeful, compassionate ‘70s gospel songs on The Time for Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us directly challenges this common way of thinking.
“Wherever you place the skull and crossbones, passage into the seventies is most often framed as a departure from idealism, a loss of innocence, and, for better or for worse, the encroachment of corporate enterprise into every pore of human endeavor—including music,” writes John Corbett near the beginning of Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music.
The assortment of hopeful, compassionate ‘70s gospel songs on The Time for Peace Is Now: Gospel Music About Us directly challenges this common way of thinking. The compilation, released by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label as part of their World Spirituality Classics series, consists of 14 tracks about as far from commercial success and corporations as you can dream up. Rather, as the liner notes elucidate, they were “dug up from a long dormancy in attics, sheds and crates across the American south.” With all these songs together in one place, the collection plays as an inspirational, alternative take on ‘70s soul, jazz and funk that brings fresh, lo-fi energy to the idea of Christian music.
“From me to you I wish you love/ For all of us are made by God,” goes one line from the LP. Appearing in The Soul Stirrers’ “I’m Trying to Be Your Friend,” it’s a lyric indicative of the album’s humble, open, considerate philosophy. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this perspective originates from a pie-in-the-sky mentality: these songs are about finding meaningful ways forward (and upward) from pain and sadness. Rev. Harvey Gates’ “It’s Hard to Live in This Old World” explains this quite directly (“We can’t find peace, we lost our hope”), and—spoiler alert—the state of the world described in “Condition the World Is In” is “very bad.” The overall impression is of artists engaging with tragic realities and doing their best to believe that things can get better.
Imagine if contemporary so-called Christian music could play this way for today’s audiences instead of coming off like commercialized, faux-anthemic drivel. Imagine it could actually sound good. The songwriting and orchestration on The Time for Peace Is Now is A-level, gold-paved stuff. Just try to keep the opening bass-and-cymbal riff on The Little Shadows’ “Time for Peace” from getting stuck in your head or the blissed-out, tin can piano funk of Willie Scott & the Birmingham Spirituals’ “Keep Your Faith to the Sky” from nudging you to look up towards a clear blue sky, imagined or real. The impressionistic piano improvisations on Rev. Harvey Gates’ “The Price of Love” are also a pleasant, jazzy surprise on an album with plenty of glorious revelations. The songs aren’t perfect—Gates, the only artist to appear twice, can sound just a little out of tune, while The Floyd Family Singers have trouble staying afloat in the disco sea of “That’s a Sign of the Times”—but their flaws provide them with a lived-in warmth that just increases listener pleasure.
The album is also a tour de force of thoughtful curation. DJ, broadcaster and producer Greg Belson compiled these 14 diverse works, and he deserves a hell of a lot of credit for locating and collecting these treasures over many years. While he doubtlessly has more where these came from, Belson and Luaka Bop wisely limit their scope. If the album was twice or three times this length, it would seem like some collector’s item for aficionados only. It’s far more accessible as it is, the perfect compilation to keep on repeat with nary a sign of redundancy or fatigue.
The various pieces that make up The Time for Peace Is Now never found an audience and thus disappeared for years. But what about now? The LP’s title purposely avoids naming a decade or time period, possibly because these songs are as necessary in this moment as they’ve ever been. “We’ve got right on our side/ And we don’t have to run and hide/ Just let your mind run free,” sings Willie Dale on “Let Your Light Shine.” It’s exactly the kind of mindful, imaginative approach that can start transforming things from the inside out.