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The other day I was on Andrew Osenga’s blog, where the topic lately has been “Top Five” lists. Several years ago, I made a top five “Christian Albums of all Time” list. (For more on what an “album” is, go here.) My list has been revised over the years some, but not much. And it has always retained Rich Mullins’s Liturgy, Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band and Phil Keaggy’s Beyond Nature. Both albums hold their immovable place on my list for the same reason—from the first track to the last, they are perfect. If I were speaking in hyperbole here, I would tell you.
I am not. They are perfect.
This opinion, I recognize, requires a defense. For Beyond Nature, here goes.
Since this is an acoustic, instrumental record, some words on Phil as a guitarist are in order. If you’re familiar at all with Phil Keaggy, I don’t really need to mention that he’s a great guitar player. What does bear mentioning here, however, is that the acoustic guitar tells the truth about the one playing it. You cannot hide your imprecision or bad timing or flubbed notes. The acoustic guitar plays you as much as you play it.
So to hear Phil alone with his acoustic is something rare. And I mean that. If you are someone who enjoys being around to witness history unfolding before your eyes, do whatever you can to be in the same room with Phil Keaggy and his acoustic guitar, because his talent comes by maybe once a century…maybe.
Beyond Nature is Keaggy’s musical tribute to C.S. Lewis (which is why I thought it would find a friendly home here in Rabbit Room). The songs musically tramp you through Lewis’s Oxford England. You can almost feel the autumn wind on your face and smell the musty old earth beneath the fallen leaves as you walk through the dales.
Every note is played with a deliberate, knowing sense of what each song needs. It is a very mature work, and rounding out the soundscape with his guitar is a collection of strings, woodwinds and, when called for, even some triumphant brass. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle on “County Down” is especially brilliant.
I imagine this album is the kind of recording musicians rarely achieve more than once a career because it has an intangible quality that seems almost impossible to manufacture at will: seamless continuity from beginning to end. This seamlessness seems to “happen to” some records, but usually even the artist is surprised when it does. Well, it happened to Beyond Nature. And for this reason, it remains inspired and untouchable on my top five.
I mean absolutely no disrespect to the other fine works Keaggy has produced. Its just that for me, this record holds together in a way that doesn’t come along very often. I have never bothered to remember the names of the individual tracks which make up “Beyond Nature” because the thing holds together so well as a complete work that I’ve never really favored one track over another. This record feels more like a symphony than a collection of songs.
Beyond Nature washes over you. It is the sound of a virtuoso playing his best work, and keeping it up for a full 60 minutes.
And sadly, it is running out of print in a hurry. But I believe you can still get a hold of it at philkeaggy.com.
Thanks, Phil. It’s perfect.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).