Someone once told me, “If you’re not troubled by anything in the Bible, you’re not paying attention.” There’s a lot of truth to that and I think that is something that a lot of overtly religious music misses. The sugary sweetness of “praise” music leads to what I see as the very odd, but convenient conclusion that a faith-based life is easy; that we ought to love God so that God will make our lives simple, smooth and happy. But that kind of faith is incomplete and more of a cop-out than a challenge. The truth about faith is that it is difficult and we often sacrifice a lot of temporal happiness on our way to True Happiness. Natalie Bergman gets this on several levels.
Mercy is at times peaceful and at others jarring. Bergman’s voice has an angelic quality, but is also at times almost not made for our ears. Her songs follow her spiritual journey following the sudden loss of her father and like so many of those journeys, especially ones of mourning, there is no consistent feeling other than yearning, for both past and future. Bergman’s songs range from world music beats to R&B-tinged gospel to piano pop. Yet the album maintains a consistency across all of that which comes from her grappling with faith in the midst of suffering.
Early in the record, Bergman clings to her faith at face value. “Talk to the Lord” references Psalm 23 and states with simple beauty, “When you are sad / He’ll dry your tears / Talk to the Lord.” One song further, she is reflecting on her own transgressions with the hope for “sunshine tomorrow” that evolves out of her contrition. “I’m Going Home” finds Bergman as an awkward St. Augustine (by way of the Carter Family perhaps) as her restlessness looks toward heaven. With her sights so set, she then begins to struggle with the loss of her earthly father and that loss parallels her growth toward her heavenly Father, morphing between those paternal figures sometimes too subtly to even notice. With this follows all of the questions that come with growth. With three songs remaining, “The Gallows” proves pivotal as both the deepest despair and the brightest hope: “We’re all born to die / Take the honey from my cup / Let Thy will be done / Hang me from the gallows / ‘Til They Kingdom come.” To the uninitiated, it is hard, almost impossible perhaps, to see the hope in those lines, but it is a hope beyond the confines of our finite lives. Like most genuine spiritual journeys, Bergman’s doesn’t end with the simple answers that started the album. Even as she is finding her hope in the next life, she still sings, “Tell me heaven where was your grace?” as she struggles through this one.
What really makes this album remarkable is the fullness and honesty of Begman’s journey. When we seek answers to our temporal happiness, we always fall short, because our flesh and bones are only part of us. The real pilgrimage is difficult and often feels uncertain, but it focuses on a goal that is most often difficult to conceive of and Mercy reflects that.
Released: May 7, 2021