Yes, that Pope Francis.
His Holiness released the album, “Wake Up!” on November 27, just in time for the holiday season. Listeners will have some joyous sounds to stave off the haziness and regret that follows a long night of overeating and casually racist relatives on Thanksgiving. Francis’ contribution to each of the 11 tracks consists of selections from Masses, speeches and prayers he’s delivered between 2013 and 2015 in various places across the world, such as South Korea and Brazil. Various choirs and musicians sandwich his speeches between bright sections of uplifting lyrics and instrumentals. Francis’ sections in each track don’t last very long in comparison to the musical sections, so as a result, no track feels dominated as a platform for teaching. Instead, the record comes together as a strong collection of prog-rock and choral tracks with occasional spoken word accompaniment.
However, some listeners will find it difficult to fully appreciate each track’s vocal components without help from a multi-lingual friend or the always-completely-accurate Google Translate. The speeches and lyrics are delivered mostly in Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. The title track, “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!” is the only track with some English. Someone who speaks at least one of those first three languages might be able to glean some meaning from the songs performed in the other languages, given their common ancestor of Latin. Those who don’t will probably want to do some research on the speeches to figure out what Francis is talking about.
The opener, “Annuntio Vobis Gaudium Magnum!” fittingly uses selections from Pope Francis’ first greeting as a pope, after he succeeded Pope Benedict XVI. The track takes on a meditative pace, using chillingly beautiful winds and strings to lull and calm the listener. It incorporates parts of Francis’ greeting twice, once near the beginning of the track and again near the end, and prepares the listener both times by replacing the choral chants with a hypnotic synth version of the motif used in the chants. However, this song is a good example of the problems with most of the other tracks. Even though Francis’ sections have the synths to aid the transition, the selections from his greeting are kind of awkwardly plopped into the music, and stretch on a bit too long. Their length disrupts the call-and-response singing between the choral groups, and the frequent applause and screaming of the crowd during Francis’ sections shatters the calm built by the strings and winds.
Lead single “Wake Up! Go! Go! Forward!” is by far the closest to the prog-rock genre, trading the choral and string sections of earlier tracks for piercing guitar riffs, drums and horn accompaniments that feel inspired by the work of prog- and post-rock bands. Pope Francis’ message here comes from his visit to South Korea last year for the sixth Asian Youth Day. There, he spoke about being a Christian in Asia, a region which, historically, has had much less Christian influence than the West. Francis’ goal of connecting with younger believers is prevalent here not just in his speech, but also in the choice of instruments and genre. This song is easily the most likely to catch the ear of a younger listener, having a more modern sound than the pieces with choir and string sections. At the same time, the triumphant horns evoke images of joyous worshippers in a church, and keep the Christian message in mind throughout the track.
Non-Catholics who might be leery of this record for its Catholic teachings shouldn’t dismiss it right away. Some songs focus less on having a strictly Christian message and more on a general, positive one. For example, in “Cuidar el Planeta,” Francis reminds the audience of the humanitarian duties to feed the starving and to take care of the planet, not letting our desire for profit destroy environments. “Pace! Fratelli!” includes a prayer for peace and an end to war and hatred, a wish which people of any faith, or lack thereof, can agree with. Naturally, though, most tracks on the album are explicitly Christian.
The album’s weakest tracks are the ones in which Francis’ speeches come in toward the middle, such as in “La Iglesia No Puede Ser una ONG!” This tends to interrupt the flow for too long, ultimately hindering the piece. These speeches would be far more effective if placed at the beginning or end rather than in the middle. Still, outside of the sometimes-awkward inclusion of the spoken word components, each track is solid on its own.
This album offers a blend of solid choir and light prog-rock music. It would make a decent stocking stuffer for those who like a little bit of each. However, those looking for full-blown prog rock or grand, traditional choir chants would be better off snagging individual tracks from iTunes instead of the whole record. The wide variety of languages used might also deter listeners who don’t feel like researching and translating Pope Francis’ world tours.
Rating: 3.5 stars