The freewheelin'Rickie Lee Jones has always blazed her own trail. She's the funky bohemian with the distinctive voice who could write a hit song about her boyfriend (1979's “Chuck E.'s in Love”) as easily as she could pen protest songs against the Bush Administration's policies (“Tell Somebody…,” from 2003's The Evening of My Best Day) before it became safe to do so. But on Sermon, the Grammy-winning singer at last walks in the footsteps of someone else: Jesus.
In the '90s, Jones 'artist-photographer friend Lee Cantelon published The Words, in which he attempted to translate Christ's teachings in the Gospels into modern-day language. Cantelon felt that if he could make Christ's words accessible, perhaps more people could benefit from the wisdom he himself had found in them. (One could argue that the Bible is one of the world's first self-help books.) In 2005, he set about gathering musicians, including Jones, to record a reading of The Words set to music. But when Jones came in to track her part, she improvised an entire song on the spot, and thus an album was born, with Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) producing.
The song that started it all, “Nobody Knows My Name,” is also Sermon's opener, and it kicks off what can only be described (with all due respect) as one hell of a rock record. Loose-limbed and raw-boned, it is to Jones what World Without Tears was to Lucinda Williams, who on that Grammy-nominated disc roughed up her sound to match her weatherbeaten voice and world-weary outlook.
Sermon, which features such soon-to-be Jones classics as the shimmering “Falling Up” and the rousing “Circle in the Sand,” is gritty with the maturity of an artist who knows and believes in herself — and in her collaborators. The record would not be nearly as powerful without the delicate electric guitar work that makes the notes sound like they're melting on “Where I Like It Best.” “Circle in the Sand” features some rootsy acoustic, while a sinuous bass snakes through “Nobody.” The ruminative “Road to Emmaus” is paved with deft fingerpicking, and “Tried to Be a Man” rocks as hard and confidently as a Stones song.
Despite its divine inspiration, Sermon isn't really an album about God. Jones is not here to preach, but she does have a message: Strip away hardened perceptions about religion and faith, the labels that divide us from each other and keep us from seeing ourselves, and try to recognize truth wherever you may encounter it. “It would be great if you could dip your hands into any spiritual path and find what's actually there,” Jones observes in the press materials for Sermon.
Too much to chew on? Just play the music. It is its own deliverance.