Progressive musicians are not known for their songwriting acumen. The nature of the music means that most of the artists who trade in it are likely to indulge their creative freedom, writing songs that are more interesting for musicians than for listeners. It is one of the main reasons why progressive music is often derided by people who haven't succumbed to its charms. There are exceptions, of course, and chief among them is Neal Morse. Through his career with Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, and his solo work, Neal has amassed a catalog that proves he is the greatest songwriter in all of progressive music. He possesses the unique skill to make music that can straddle the line between progressive and pop, which allows his music to appeal to both sides of the brain. It is the main reason that, in the time since I first discovered his music, Neal has rapidly ascended into the pantheon of my favorite songwriters. I can't express the respect and admiration I have for him and his music.
“Songs From November” is not a prog album, but it is exactly what I had been waiting to hear from Neal. His “God Won't Give Up” album, a collection of pop songs, is paradoxically my favorite album he has ever made. I grew up and came of age in the 90s, when pop music was dominated by guitar bands, and that's what Neal's non-progressive work reminds me of. It's like stepping into a time machine and remembering better days.
I get that same feeling from “Songs From November”, where over the course of the album's eleven tracks, Neal shows why he is a master songwriter. Bouncing between sounds and styles, Neal never fails to give every song the kind of hook that gets caught in your head for days. He has a seemingly endless supply of them.
Diversity is the name of the album, the songs each having a unique personality, a trait that makes them all the more memorable. “Whatever Days” opens the album with flourishes of horns, an upbeat blast of optimism that becomes infectious after the first listen. The album uses that as a detour, exploring more introspective sounds with the Americana-influenced “Flowers In A Vase”, and the somber “My Time Of Dying” and “Tell Me Annabelle”. They are songs that could become maudlin in the wrong hands, but Neal balances them with tender and touching melodies that allow an uplifting sense of hope to shine through.
The trait I have noticed throughout Neal's career is that his songwriting has gotten better as he has become more honest in what he writes about. The connection he now has to his music is palpable, and comes through in how inspired he sounds to be able to make these records. Nowhere is this more true than on “Daddy's Daughter”, a touching song Neal wrote in honor of his daughter. I can see where people might complain that the lyrics are too trite, are too direct, but that's the charm. Neal is unflinching in his honesty, telling us exactly what he is thinking and feeling. I don't think it's a coincidence that such an honest track features one of the best melodies I've ever heard Neal deliver.
These are direct songs, but that doesn't make them simple. There are still little nuggets of musicality scattered throughout that make you stand back and realize what pop music is usually missing. Whether the gorgeous layered harmonies, the perfectly executed string and brass elements, or the key change that leads into the last rousing chorus on “My Time Of Dying”, these songs are expertly crafted slices of melodic bliss. “Tell Me Annabelle” is like a mobius strip, twisting back on itself until the structure seems both foreign and like an old friend. It shows the skill needed to write great pop music.
“Songs From November” is clearly a proof of my hypothesis, the title a nod to the burst of inspiration that birthed these songs. If they truly are the collected work of such a short amount of time, I am left in awe of the well of music Neal must still have within him. “Songs From November” might not be the prog Neal is known for, but it might just be the most enjoyable solo album he's ever made. “Songs From November” is direct, it's honest, and it's stunning.