I’ve always found it easier to ask people for prayer than to pray myself—perhaps because believing in the existence of God is easier than connecting to Him. Without the latter, I couldn’t pray. So I asked my mom to pray for me. I asked my friends to pray for me. I asked strangers to pray for me. I wrote the prayers of saints and other God-loving humans on index cards and carried them around in my jacket pockets until I accidentally laundered them and they disintegrated into lint. But one thing I could do was sing hymns—which never felt trite and silly to me like Christian pop songs. I hoped the spirit of these hymns would become my own as I whispered a single refrain over and over again—Be Thou My Vision, Be Thou My Vision, Be Thou My Vision.
The first song on Jacob Montague’s newest album All Creatures has one single refrain like this. A single, repeated piano note opens up a path for this proclamation: In Him Was Light, chants a chorus of angelic voices, creating an orb of atmospheric sound. In Him Is Light. What was still is, and what is will be; this is a declaration not of existence but of discovery. The sound thickens with a perky clarinet, a rousing, awakening spirit that becomes more expansive with a heavy drum line that sounds like a call to war.
All Creatures is a marriage of disparate feelings: of praise for creation and of despair for destruction. This is also a marriage of unlikely sounds—wind instruments with electronic synth, mandolin with percussion samples—this kind of tinkering orchestration is Jacob’s strength. Each song is a narrative unto itself, with a wide and complex range of emotional and aural frequencies. No sound is filler, and no one instrument dominates. Somehow Jacob weaves together a smooth patchwork quilt, with slightly frayed and jagged edges. Unlike his previous solo work, this album includes lyrics, voices, and a whole cast of instruments—more than twelve in total: you’ll hear clarinet, organ, banjo, theremin, trombone, and a toy piano, among other delightful curiosities. Jacob even uses found sounds that he records here and there in San Francisco, where he lives.
The title of the album All Creatures makes reference to the hymnal lyrics written by St. Francis of Assisi in 1225, a focal point of the work. It’s tempting to use religious allusions to give off spiritual airs—like donning a habit, or wearing a cross—or to get people to take you seriously, but there is no naiveté or pretense here. Instead, Jacob borrows the rich language and imagery of the stories, liturgies, and canticles of St. Francis, which deepen the lyrical narrative while widening the musical landscape. Deft allusions expand our understanding of the spirit, not the spirituality of the album.
The songs that follow are woven together cohesively in both name and sound: “In Him Was Light,” “Tinder/Spark,” “Doxology,” “Canticle of the Sun,” “All Creatures,” and “Sermon to the Birds”—forming a tight album that is under twenty minutes long, with repeating motifs of light and dark. The album feels like one single life with different phases—not unlike the Psalms, which are attentive to complex emotional vacillations; or the life of St. Francis, whose character we understand through anecdotes and tales. You’ll play it over and over again because there’s more to hear each time, and the ending feels almost premature, like you’ve only heard the first chapter in a great novel.
In person, Jacob is tall and unassuming, with a dark beard and wiry glasses that could have belonged a physicist from the 80s. He doesn’t speak loudly, but he speaks playfully. His sense of humor is so earnest that it almost feels politically incorrect, but it’s a sense of humor that needs an audience to be effective. Despite his quiet demeanor, he’s a people-person, and that shows on this album.
In the past, Jacob’s solo albums have been exclusively instrumental, artful demonstrations of himself as a composer, arranger, tinkerer, and musician, but the vulnerability that bleeds through All Creatures is a new strain—one that comes through the meditative lyrics and the communion of musicians and voices that Jacob brings together, his own voice an instrument unto itself. This communion in the making of the album is faithful to the communion on which this album hinges: the relationships between all creatures and God and man.
Yet creation and destruction go hand in hand, and not without tension either. Inevitably, we find that the coexistence of life and death is essentially the war between the two, and that cycles of life are made possible through death—soil, heartbreak, and sacrifice. “Doxology,” which literally means “glory-saying,” begins with solemn praise engulfed in a space of reverberating, electronic sounds that stretch upward to a cathedral ceiling. A glockenspiel chimes. A trombone plays. “Praise him from whom all blessings flow. Praise him from creatures here below.” The words of a common doxology familiar to many of us transition into a declaration of destruction: “You destroyed them like ships at sea, shattered by the east wind.” Here echoes of sorrow swirl with echoes of praise. The Portuguese use the word saudade to describe a beautiful sadness, a love that remains despite absence, and this is the nuanced, in-between feeling that “Doxology” captures—which isn’t completely wholesome, and never fully resolved. Sometimes the glazed-over effervescence of praise that doesn’t acknowledge sorrow seems silly and incomplete, like a line from a poem by Nazim Hikmet: “You have to feel this sorrow now—for the world must be loved this much if you're going to say ‘I lived.’” The most captivating part of the song is toward the end, when the trombone emerges in a funeral march that spirals downward into a round of voices. “Canticle of the Sun,” picks back up with the whimsy of clarinet and banjo, proclaiming, “We don’t need candles anymore.” There is enough light here.
In the hour of St. Francis’ death, a flock of morning larks, the saint’s favorite bird, emerged out of darkness despite their dread of twilight. Flying flow, they circled above the house where the body of St. Francis lay, sweetly singing, a bird choir both praising and mourning. Now the larks were not only birds of sorrow and grief, but also birds of glory and paradise. With his last breath, the soul of St. Francis, God’s troubadour, now winged and transcendent, ascended to heaven, like a moth scrambling towards light. This album is a scrambling towards light: an album that, despite its brevity, contains the knotted glories of both tragedy and praise.
Download All Creatures for free.