There's always been something a bit ethereal about Rickie Lee Jones. In a career spanning nearly thirty years, her music has, by and large, maintained an airy, jazzy quality that spoke of a street level freedom. Bubbling beneath the surface, though, there was an underlying hint of restlessness, of a spirit seeking new vistas. Unfortunately, much of that spirit was stifled in pop-driven albums that rarely showcased her strengths. The pop machinery was quite content with the bohemian pop star they'd created, and she was perhaps too beset with personal demons to completely break free of that image.
The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard finds Jones with a new label (New West) and a new sense of conviction. Her first album of original material since 2003's ambitious but hollow The Evening of My Best Days, this latest release is a testament to the power of the spirit. What began as a project to interpret Lee Cantelon's book The Words as a spoken word record was transformed into something more universal once Jones was brought on board. Cantelon's original idea was simple enough — to put the words of Jesus Christ into a modern context outside the conventions of contemporary organized religion and lay those words over a bed of music.
The project immediately shifted gears when Jones came in to lay down her vocals. Instead of reciting the text before her, she improvised, beat-fashion, a stream of consciousness lyric that would become "I Was There." It's a haunting piece, with only Jones and her guitar summing up the underlying theme of the album — that the original message of Jesus has been lost in the wrangling of organized religion. "Where have you been that you don't know what's going on here in Jerusalem?" she asks a manifestation. "Haven't you heard about the Nazarene? You know, we thought we were gonna set Israel free." It closes the album on a note of quiet irony, pondering how the message of Christ got lost through the generations.
Don't expect Sermon to be a chart-topper among the Christian Right, though. And don't think of it as a born again pop collection. If anything, this is a work that takes Christianity away from the bloated pulpits of politics and wealth, and returns it to the streets from whence it sprang. The Jesus here is the universal spirit of man, more apt to turn up in a seedy Culver City bar than a megachurch. If there's a theme to this album, it's the importance of spirituality, not religion. It's no surprise then, that "Elvis Cadillac" finds Elvis, Janis Joplin at his side, cruising heaven in the King's vehicle of choice.
While Sermon does have some mystic overtones about it, it's unfair to compare it to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, as some advance press has attempted to do. What Rickie Lee Jones and company have done here is infuse the words and ideals of Jesus with a punk sensibility. Most of the music here is much more akin to Lou Reed than Van Morrison. "Circle in the Sand" sounds as if it was channeled through Transformer, and has that same sense of ennui that's the signature of much of Reed's work. That's not to imply this is a derivative work — far from it. It alternates between the playful ("Falling Up") and the foreboding (Donkey Ride", with its chilling refrain "You rode in on a donkey tonight, but you'll be going out on a cross"), but mostly remains true to its vision of private spirituality.
The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard in some ways is a departure for Rickie Lee Jones. Gone are the bluesy, jazzy arrangements generally associated with her work, replaced with with the gritty, barebones instrumentation that speaks directly to gut instinct. Lyrically, it's her most provocative work yet, with words that can only be dragged from the soul. Yet, it is ultimately a work about the simple release of surrendering to the realms that lie beyond our logic. Never preachy, often amusing and always profound in a basic way, this may be her finest work to date. It's certainly the best album of 2007 thus far.
A side note: This album is available in two configurations. Go for the Limited Edition Release. It's limited to 35,000 numbered copies, and it's well worth the extra couple of bucks you have to spring for it. It includes a a 40 minute DVD featuring clips from the studio sessions, as well as a fourteen page booklet detailing the origins of the album. As a bonus, the DVD is embedded with an mp3 version of the full album for download to portable players.