With her latest record, recording artist and worship leader Nikki Lerner is aiming to get some things off her chest.
Not in the I’m-angry-and-I-just-need-to-vent sense, but in the these-are-the-things-I-think-about-all-the-time-but-now-I’m-actually-going-to-say-them-out-loud sense … hence the album’s title, The Things We Never Say.
And my sense, after both listening to the record and talking to her directly (FULL DISCLOSURE: she and I have been friends for years through our connection with the Multicultural Worship Leaders Network) is that by being so frank and forthcoming, she wants to give others permission to do the same.
Sometimes when a record’s honesty is its calling card, the potency of sentiment masks a lack of interesting musicality. Other records go to the other extreme, hanging dizzying orchestrations and audacious arrangements on a blank shell of uninteresting clichés. In both cases, it seems to be the artist trying to maximize his or her strengths by masking corresponding weaknesses. It’s like, “if you don’t have anything interesting to say, then say something boring in a cool way.” Or, “if you can’t make cool music, at least say something interesting.”
On the contrary, The Things We Never Say is intriguing both in what it says as well as how it says it. Crisp rhythms, dynamic soundscapes and angular chord progressions percolate in unexpected support of Lerner’s soaring harmonies and inflections that float over the top and leave an impression long after the music no longer lingers. Imagine if Sade ever collaborated with Snarky Puppy… that’s what this record is like. Credit go not only to Lerner herself, but to her impressive band (Stephen Waddy on keys, David Phillips on bass, and husband David Lerner on drums).
People who know Nikki from her work as a worship leader may be surprised to find that this album, though it is informed by a Christian worldview, is not explicitly Christian in focus. It is not worship music. On the contrary, its themes are timeless and accessible for anyone who has ever been alive long enough to develop significant relationships and had to navigate the baggage that tends to accompany them. The songs on The Things We Never Say are full of honest emotion, but also ambiguity, regret, wonder, and tentative questioning… they feel, forgive the buzzword, authentic. Lerner and her band do their best to craft aural experiences that echo the natural rhythms we all go through as we try to find our places in and amongst each other.
My favorites so far are her lead single, “Can We Start Over” and the album’s concluding ode, “Let Me Say Goodbye.” Both of them do a great job of living up to the theme, because they both echo sentiments rarely heard in R&B or pop music. The former lumbers along with a sense of languid, pensive funk, and lyrically invites the listener to take stock of the faults that might be unwittingly polluting their relationships, and the latter provides, in guitar ballad form, a merciful admission that sometimes the most familiar relationships still need to end for the best of all parties involved. If that sounds heavy, well… it is. But it’s also authentic and potent, and designed to appeal to listeners who want more depth of emotion and maturity in their music.
If there’s a weakness in this record, it’s that it doesn’t seem to have a lot of hooks. There are no hashtaggable catchphrases, no earworm-y phrases. But — speaking of things I never say — sometimes hooks are overrated. I mean, don’t get me wrong, nice hooks are great, but they don’t usually help rekindle a marriage, or help reconcile a friendship, or walk you through a break-up in a responsible way. Sometimes you just need to get real and say what needs to be said. With this record, Nikki Lerner and company are here to help you do just that.
So if you’re too broke for therapy, just find a good pair of headphones and a comfy couch and spend some time listening to The Things We Never Say. You might just end up in a better space.