One part ache, two parts beautiful, Aaron Neville has a true story to tell in his first gospel album--and we all should be listening.

The anchor to the album, released on EMI Gospel, is Neville's distinctive wavering and floating falsetto that has made him a four-time Grammy winner and a legend to his devoted fans. It is a voice stamped with the kind of hardship that gives a soul humility, longing, and wisdom. At times, it brings to mind Billie Holiday's equally fragile signature: You can hear the miles, the years, the struggles, the battles, that have instilled that quavering uncertainty.

It's a voice, and world-weariness, Neville earned in a long life before success found him. The third of six children, Neville was raised in a public housing project in New Orleans in the 1940s. He was married at 18, dabbled in drugs, and spent time in jail for auto theft. He worked as a freight handler, longshoreman, ditch digger, and steel mill worker before he discovered music.

Though he names Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Dixie Hummingbirds, Mahalia Jackson, and others in his eclectic pantheon of influences, Neville's earliest attempts to groom his voice came when, as a boy, he learned to yodel. He later sang doo-wop in his brother's band, which scored a hit in 1966: "Tell It Like It Is." But it wasn't until 1989 that the Neville Brothers released Grammy-winning "Yellow Moon" and made their mark with songs like "My Blood," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and the title track. Aaron and his brother Art were the standouts in the group (though all the brothers had solo ventures in later years), and Aaron went on to sing duets with Linda Ronstadt and Trisha Yearwood. He has sold 25 million records worldwide and has become one of the most recognizable voices of his generation of singers: Even in the throwaway tagline on a commercial for America's cotton industry ("the fabric of our lives"), his sound is unmistakable.

Neville uses his voice to innovative effect on this mix of original songs, covers, traditional gospel tunes, and even some duets with Christian pop artists Rachel Lama and Avalon. The album is one he has wanted to do for many years, but which A&M, his first label, always shied away from. It is unabashedly gospel. He opens with a tent-revival-flavored gospel favorite, "Mary, Don't You Weep." Other traditional and doo-wop gospel pieces include "Were You There?" and "Jesus Loves Me."

The second track, "Jesus Is a Friend of Mine," is compelling: Part spoken chronicle, part delicate bluesy spiritual, it allows Neville to share the struggles he has seen and to confess that it has been Jesus who has been there to pull him through. Delivered with such passion, the song plays more like a testimonial than anything else. It is the centerpiece of the record. "'Jesus Is a Friend of Mine' is a song I lived," Neville says about the record. "It's my life put to words. Maybe not everybody who just knows my name knows my story, but anyone who knows me at all won't be surprised about how straightforward this record is about what I believe. I couldn't have made it through my life if Jesus hadn't been there with me."

The entire album is better for having Neville share these personal convictions. Any song becomes more affecting when we share something with the artist: a memory, a place in time, an association. More than just good music, we are changed by relationship. Neville lets us in to his life
precisely in this way.

The songs with Lampa and Avalon are likely to be the most played in Christian rotation, and they are pretty standard Christian market fare. But Neville is at his best when he writes and sings the songs that unfold out of his much-traveled life, and in breathing new life into classics like "Morning Has Broken" also recorded by Cat Stevens' (now Yusef Islam), Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," and Simon and Garfunkel's shimmering "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Like most journeys, what one finds at the end gives perspective to the entire trip. After the journey so far--one that has been 60 years in the making--the final word has been blessing, and Neville wants to share that blessing with anyone willing to listen.

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