Album Review: "When the World is Wonderful" by blisse (2001)
Let me preface this by saying I’m probably neither a writer nor a musician, but instead, such an appreciator of the creative form, that I can’t help but strive to emulate it and thus own guitars and write stories to cope with my appreciation of others' efforts. Rather than chat books or movies today, we’re going to take the mental Rolodex back twenty-two years and discuss the thought provoking and meaningful indie album, “When the World is Wonderful”, by alternative Christian band, blisse, a band that made "being in a band" cool to me and many others in the DFW area in the early to mid-2000s as we ventured into the MySpace band era (said evidence of such still floats around today).
When it comes to blisse, a former seventh-grade classmate's Sunday school teacher was also one of the lead singers and this kid's hyperactive and persuasive pull was such that he scored the band to do gigs at the school multiple times, hence creating an entourage of little middle school fans that have now gone on to be thirty-somethings.
Struggling to find the album in its most original of forms, the good old-fashioned CD, I set out to eBay and acquired the lone copy available a few weeks ago, and what followed, left me with the epiphany I must review this fantastic and oft-forgotten album. What follows are my own editorial notes on each track.
The lead in track, “Until the World,” has us cranking up the volume as breathy but smooth singer and rhythm guitarist, Josh Havens, contemplates the meaning of existence and the end of days. Layers of careful harmonies, palm mutes, and overdriven guitars soak the choruses while a happier finger picked sound graces the verses. Lead guitarist, Matt Fuqua gives us an enjoyable solo while Brad Wigg and Michael Burden hold down the fort with a tight bass line and drum groove, respectively.
“Until the world won’t turn.
‘Til the planets burn...
‘Til the sun dies I’ll be there.
Until the heavens go. ‘Til this life is done.
‘Til the world dies, I’ll be there.”
Hold onto your hats. There’s no breather between tracks, the pressed album has a way of running the tracks one straight into the next and it’s clearly by design. “The Way You Are” comes in full blast, the overdrive rhythm guitars exhibiting a good medium crunch, and the band’s introspective lyrics continuing to paint vivid pictures.
“After all this time,
I’ve come to find my soul’s fragility.
But You’ve rectified my frailty by Your strength.
It’s like the sun’s swallowed up by the earth
like atomic bombs in reverse,
as if the blast could contain the same,
that’s the way You are in me.
That’s the way You are in me.”
Having seen the band play a couple of times at the time and in reviewing their 2002 DVD live release, they often played the first two songs back-to-back in a similar fashion in their live performances in the era. This is also our first glance at Matt Fuqua’s edgy and powerful vocals, a likable and much welcome compliment to Havens on many of the album’s other tracks.
The end of track two feeds right into the next song, “Take My Hand,” as distortions in this mid-tempo song seem tamer but follow the traditional loud quiet loud formula as was common with most alternative tracks in the 1990s and early 2000s. A controlled solo resembles something from Nirvana before breaking down into a nice acoustic guitar breakdown. Simplicity in the lyrics make the song’s La-La-La chants stay in your head.
“If you’re alone tonight, and you’re not alright with it, take my hand...”
After three high energy tunes, the band slows down to a more acoustic sound with “You,” Josh Havens at the helm. There’s a subtle vinyl-like graininess over the first verse before we’re lured into the pre-chorus and the tempo picks up and the clarity becomes 2001 friendly as he sings praises to the Almighty. There’s a youth and an innocence to the vocal tones on this track that show a kindness and reverence that perhaps are never achieved again but in that very moment which is certainly a high-water mark for a vocalist.
“You’re in my heart.
You’re in my soul.
You are my heaven,
You’re my home.
You’re my best friend.
You’re my true love.
You are my treasure.
You’re my hope.
You are my peace.
You are my joy.
You are my Savior, you’re my God…”
There’s a sonically interesting breakdown that occurs in the middle of the song where the band finds a jammable pocket and it’s a great testament to the energy of a group that still writes music in a garage all together versus exchanging tracks online as is more common these days (present company included). The track would later be featured in the band’s mainstream debut album, "I Wish We All Could Win," but we’ll get to that later. I still prefer this version for its authenticity.
There’s a shift in the alternative style as we move into “One More Day” and this is when blisse shows it can easily tone it down like a coffee shop band, which interestingly is what blisse has in common as Wigg, Fuqua, Havens, and Burden all worked together in a Dallas area Starbucks in the late 90s. When it comes to this song, the tame acoustics and airy lead guitars offer opportunity for Fuqua to really shine. His vocals have a power to them that make me want to hear more.
“I just can’t go on, one more day without with you…
‘Cause You knocked a thousand times,
and every chance I turned away.
It seems impossible for me to see.
How You can love me in the midst of my selfishness and greed.
But now I’m on my knees, begging Jesus please.
I just can’t go on. One more day without You…
The paradox is that You found favor with my soul…
to escape Your grace is all I want, but You will not let go.”
Track six is “Takin’ Over the World,” and its bass player Brad Wigg’s first track on lead vocals. We’ve slowed down to an old-fashioned lounge singer sort of pace, but the tremolo guitars and soothing tones of the bassist’s voice reel us in with ease, a hint of blues steering the track’s allure.
“I won’t sit back any longer.
I won’t be silent anymore.
I’m stepping into the limelight, baby.
I’m takin’ over the world.”
The song shines at different points vocally and guitar alike, but the three-part vocal harmonies also reflect the band’s chops to mash up genres with startling ease all the while maintaining tonal cohesiveness. We’re treated to some blues licks and mini solos that give a good flavor to the song’s slower pace.
Track seven, “Reward,” shows Josh Havens singing to an unknown woman he’s crossed paths with-- the song taking a tone that resembles REM or Smashing Pumpkins.
“I’m gonna make it better for you and me…
Time is moving on…
and still I find you in my heart…
A thousand miles I’d walk.. to see you smile.”
The mid-tempo and mild guitar distortions are comfortable and not overbearing to the softer-spoken vocals. I feel like the chorus of the song struggles to really offer a tune to latch onto, though. It’s hard to articulate. Though the track doesn’t resonate with me, it fits well with the rest, and in some ways I would deem it a filler track or just a breather song for the band in their live performances. Not to worry, the album’s closing tracks rebound incredibly.
The eighth track, “I Want You Back” showcase Josh Havens and the band back to full form after a few slower paced tracks in a high energy post punk track predestined for airplay all over the Dallas airwaves. Straight forward instrumentation and distorted guitars show the band having the most fun on the album in three and four chorded numbers. A wobbly vocal distortion on the bridge from Fuqua sounds cool as we wait for the final refrain. I will say, eight tracks in, the group’s backing vocals and ear for guitar tone continues to keep me engaged track after track. I can only imagine the creativity and the caffeine flowing in that Starbucks between orders.
“I want you back. I want you back.
You want me too, I know it’s true.
Your love for me won’t let me be.
And it’s calling me, drawing me,
dragging me back to you.
Back to you. Back to you.”
“Perfect and Beautiful” is the quintessential love song that blisse had to write to keep their girlfriends pleased, and it doesn’t disappoint. Josh Havens serenades his significant other with ease, and as I recall, this track made the first mixtape I gave to my own sweetheart.
“I want to take you in my arms and sing to you the song of love…
could it be that you’re the one sent by God down from above?
You’re the one. You’re the one...
If loves like an ocean, let’s go for a swim,
I’ll save you before you drown,
we’ll flock to the heavens,
it’s where you belong,
you’re perfect and beautiful.”
A great blend of distorted and acoustic guitars marry airy synthesizers while the back line guys keep the band in a solid comfortable gear that in some ways may be the most “blissful” song on the album. Tight harmonies and enticing vocals leave me singing along every time, especially at the songs crescendo. I often wonder why this track didn’t make the cut on the band’s mainstream debut, “I Wish We All Could Win.”
Track ten, “Find,” is another solid high-energy gem with a similar but distinct tone reminiscent of “I Want You Back” and rebounds from the softer-spoken track 9. It’s also a great duet for Havens and Fuqua sharing duties on lead vocals. Guitars are solid, gritty, and steady with lots of overdrive, drums and bass in a comfortable supporting pocket that’s easy to miss which is often reflective of how well a band plays together. If I’m thinking about all the pieces too much as separate instruments, there’s likely a failure for something to jive. The song races like a roller coaster up and down again, and well utilizing the loud quiet loud dynamics at key points. Through the years, I can honestly say I’ve listened to it dozens of times for its sheer creative synchronicity. The band finds fun again while sharing a convicting message.
“Help me find my way I’ve gone astray,
I fell into my ways don’t turn away,
I’m calling out Your name…
And I cry for a little, complain a lot,
and I’ll wait for the moment when I just wake up.
It seems that I’ve been living a simple dream
and I wait for the time I can go away.”
The eleventh track, “Drip,” slows us down into an acoustic Matt Fuqua song resemblant to jars of clay as he reflects on the importance of “living water.” The track’s tame beat allows for more bass experimentation by Wigg and a vocal high point for Fuqua and the complementing harmonies from Havens and Wigg. The song also features a string line that really brings it all together.
“One drip can drive throats from parching.
One drip saw the Red Sea parting.
One drip rolled down Jesus’ face
before He died to take my place.”
A closer track on many albums has potential to wind things down, and to say that "Wait" is the perfect wind down would be an understatement. Brad Wigg takes the lead on vocals as a lone acoustic guitar drives the bulk of the song.
“Wait, I can hardly wait
To look into Your face.
When the world disappears into Your eyes.
Wait, I can hardly wait to hear Your sweet voice say,
'you’ve done well, my good and faithful son.'
Breathe, I can hardly breathe, in anticipation,
waiting for the day to come
when you will shine on me.”
What’s amazing with this tune is that I don’t even notice how exclusively acoustic it is. The weight of the lyrics and the artist’s purity is such that one can’t help but feel conviction in its heartfelt message about the end of days. As the song builds, a string accompaniment and backing vocals join the ensemble, but Wigg’s thirteen second note hold at the end of the song leaves me wondering how much breath it takes to belt that out night after night. Beautiful close out to an enjoyable album reminiscent of the period it was birthed in while still maintaining a distinct character that keeps me listening twenty-two years later.
Initially signed to Crucible Records (an indie label associated with then music club, The Door), blisse toured faithfully at schools, churches, and clubs as time permitted and became a staple act in the DFW music scene. They went through a name change between 2003 and 2004 when they found another group had the same name and rebranded as The Afters. Signing a major record deal with Epic/INO records, a handful of tracks from “When the World is Wonderful” made it on the “I Wish We All Could Win” album including: “You,” “Wait,” “The Way You Are,” and “Until the World.”
Since that time and with some lineup changes from the original four, The Afters have gone on to crank out hits for years since this time including a few chart toppers in the alternative and Christian markets but at the band’s roots comes a humble start built on coffee grounds, guitars, and love for Jesus.
Album: “When the World is Wonderful”
Production Quality: B