What is your quotient for sentiment? I don’t mean the bread-and-butter sentiment of a Hallmark card adorned with pink hearts and flowers, or of a Norman Rockwell painting of an all-American family gathered ’round the fire. I mean sentiment laid on so thick, with so many dynamic swells, quivers in the voice, and long-held final notes that ostensibly simple songs are transformed into operatic scenes worthy of a Boris Godunov or Violetta Valéry.
Do you long to hear the traditional song “Shenandoah” sung as though the narrator will never live to reach the promised land? Have you been waiting decades for an operatically trained baritone to finally present Aaron Copland’s arrangement of Robert Lowry’s “At the River” as though at a revival meeting, with the preacher holding the word “God” so long that you’d expect everyone to fall to their knees with cries of “Hallelujah!”?
If baritone Lucas Meachem’s bravely unaccompanied rendition of the Star Spangled Banner works for you, then Shall We Gather (Rubicon), his recital with his pianist wife Irina Meachem (Rubicon), has your name all over it. Meachem is in prime voice. For but one example, turn to the aforementioned “Shenandoah,” where he transitions from strong, handsome projection to sweet voice and then back again before ending on a gorgeous floated high note.
However, if you prefer words and melodies to speak for themselves, then you may feel that Shall We Gather should be come with the warning label, “Too much schmalz can be dangerous for your health.”
“Shall we gather?” asks Dan Ruccia in his liner commentary. Underscoring how terrified many of us have become of gatherings during the pandemic, Ruccia points to the Meachems’ offering of 15 art songs “by and about a broad swath of people from the United States” as “a vision of Americanness centered around the things that call on us to gather and that we gather to call upon.” Yet his claim that these songs are “rooted in an act of hope in the promise of resilience that underlies our national character” seems challenged by the all too frequent character of pain and suffering that Lucas Meachem brings to them.
Without question, some of the Meachems’ repertory, including Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem” and Jake Heggie’s “That Moment On” from Songs of 9/11, are inherently sentimental to a fault. But rather than temper sentiment with restraint, Meachem sings as though to ensure that everyone in the grand house, including the poor souls trapped in the cheap seats with obstructed views, gets the message that America’s story is akin to one great big soap opera.
It doesn’t take long to get where Meachem is coming from. I hope that some will appreciate this album. I find the interpretations insufferable.