Death of a Saint by Sam Billen (Review)

Each song feels perfectly, beautifully natural, an outlet for a man trying to cope with death and loss.
Death of a Saint - Sam Billen

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, least of all me, that in light of recent national events, I find much solace in music. Anyone who doesn’t believe in the healing power of music is missing out on one of the few things in life that truly is transcendental. It’s at those times, alone in my room, when I can put on a CD and just push the world away… maybe to escape, maybe to gain perspective, or maybe just to cope. And it seems fitting that right now, a CD that’s helping me make sense of things was written to deal with another, more personal, tragedy.

People react to the loss of a loved one in different ways. Some never get over it. Some push on, trying to ignore the pain and living life as normally as possible. And still others seek to take that loss and craft something out of it, to serve as reminder, tribute, or healing. Death of a Saint clearly takes the latter route. Written by Sam Billen (of the criminally overlooked The Billions) as a tribute to his mother who died of cancer, Death of a Saint is sorrowful, nostalgic, and quite conducive to moments of introspection.

Don’t be too surprised if, while listening to “Joyful in Hope” or “Those Who Hear Will Live,” you find yourself staring out the window, a bemused expression on your face while some distant childhood memory works through your spirit. These meandering piano-based instrumentals have a way of doing that. Perhaps the best comparison would be Rachel’s, minus the elaborate arrangements and orchestrations. Parts of Death of a Saint feel like nothing so much as a stripped down Seas and Bells, but manages to outdo that album’s emotional impact in nearly every way.

A friend of mine once called Rachel’s “funeral music,” and Death of a Saint is most certainly not that. It may be melancholy, but it’s never morose or gloomy. “Whoever Believes” starts off delicately enough, before transforming into something almost triumphant, even celebratory… perhaps hinting at the glory awaiting those who believe. Much of Death of a Saint feels that way, better suited for an entry through the pearly gates than some somber, black-draped processional.

Even a casual glance over the song titles reveal a strong Christian outlook (“Patient in Affliction,” “Faithful in Prayer,” “Confess With Your Mouth”). That, combined with the passages strewn throughout the liner notes (which all deal with death and resurrection) clearly reveal a man who, though grieving loss, believes that such loss is only temporary.

One might find themselves looking for a little string accompaniment here, an orchestral flourish there, what with the Rachel’s comparisons and all. But I think I like the purity of these songs as they are; anything else would probably shatter the simple intimacy that is this album’s real strength. I think “purity” is as good a way as any to describe these songs. There’s nothing contrived here. Each song feels perfectly, beautifully natural, an outlet for a man trying to cope with death and loss. And thanks to whatever strange powers music has, it also has the ability to be an outlet for the rest of us.

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