Pope Francis releases weird debut album

The world’s oldest and most successful marketing organisation knows how to sell its products. If you have an artist with a worldwide fanbase, an ability to fill stadiums and popularity in territories where One Direction would fail to raise an eyebrow, then you want to make the most of his debut album.

Hence the Vatican’s decision to release the first album by its No 1 artist – a man whose mere voice conveys something spiritual, who offers comfort to those in need, affirmation to those in doubt and upliftment to those in the doldrums, without even being Chris Martin – on Friday November 27.

A week earlier, and Pope Francis would have been putting Wake Up! out against Adele. A week later, and he would have been facing Coldplay. As it is, Wake Up! sneaked out in the weakest week of the pre-Christmas schedules.

You might argue that judging the pope against conventional releases is a worthless task, but clearly there are those in the papal camp who want it assessed as a normal album.

Wake Up! is being promoted by a music PR firm, one that normally looks after metal releases rather than debut albums from God’s vicar. One shudders to think at what Marilyn Manson, Lemmy, Megadeth, Guns N’ Roses and Rob Zombie would make of being on the same roster as Francis. And vice versa, of course.

The way the album has been put together would be familiar to countless rock legends of a certain vintage, especially the dead ones.

Francis, sadly, did not enter the studio with a crack team of session musicians, a producer du jour – no Arca or Ariel Rechtshaid at the controls here – armed with a limitless supply of alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Instead, old vocal tracks – well, we’ll call them that, but they’re actually snippets of speeches, prayers and masses given around the world between March 13 2013 and January 18 2015 – are tacked on to specially recorded pieces of music, repurposed hymns, with the outbreaks of cheers and applause making it sound oddly like one of those 1960s “live albums” that consisted of studio versions given an overdub of screaming fans.

Where you might hear some tiny element of commonality with Francis’s metallic brethren is on Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward – a track title that sounds as though it ought to have come off a Bow Wow Wow album.

A deep synth hum is overlaid by three ascending piano chords, a bit of wailing guitar and what sounds remarkably like a Hammond B3 organ. A minute in, and the guitars fuzz into life, before fading for a trumpet pattern that sounds almost like a Bond theme in parts. The pope begins to speak – in halting English, but then, he does speak several languages across the album – over palm-muted guitars.

Once he’s told the young people to go out into the world and show mercy and to wake up, a rock voice (not a cardinal, probably) emotes away before a final 45 seconds that is genuinely metallic. Not especially heavy metal – it’s more Europe than Carcass – but metallic ­nevertheless.

For all the warnings that this was the pope’s prog album, you’re still not quite prepared for this, even if the track was composed by Tony Pagliuca of the Italian prog band Le Orme. Somehow, one expected it to be more like Alexander Armstrong – tasteful, old-fashioned, safe, one to appeal to the older listeners.

Quite who among the pope’s flock Wake Up! will appeal to is a moot point. It’s not simple and straightforward enough to put on in the background while you thumb through the gospels.

But its oddness is of a particularly niche kind: it sounds as though one single person in the Vatican knew one single producer (an Italian producer of religious music named Giulio Negroni) and told him to put together the album, trusting that anyone who knew their way around a studio could make a record that would have the youth turning off Drake’s Hotline Bling and switching to that wild, heavenly sound.

But Wake Up! sounds like the kind of album that crate diggers, kitsch lovers and sample seekers will cherish, and will baffle almost everyone else. Neroni’s re­arrangements of hymns are simply odd – choirs pile upon soft rock, proggy noodling meets ambient etherealism.

It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear English radio DJ and television presenter Stuart Maconie announcing on The Freak Zone with the news that he picked it up from a record fair in Bologna for a euro, because the bloke on the stall told him the pope’s bassist engineered some of Goblin’s film soundtracks or something.

As rock albums by leaders of the world’s faiths go, it’s certainly the best yet. But that’s largely down to the singular lack of competition. Just wait until His All Holiness Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, records his hair metal album. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Michael Hann
Guest Author
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