Mark Heard has been a busy camper. After years of working in relative obscurity, on the outskirts of popular expectations and hopes, Heard has delivered his third fine album in as many years without so much as a record company until this Enclave debut. That Satellite Sky, checking in at 70 minutes with 15 tracks, is a stronger whole that either Dry Bones Dance or Second Hand would be accomplishment enough. However, this album’s poetic brilliance and bright musicality rank it among the greatest artistic efforts in Heard’s 15 year career, Victims of the Age and Mosaics. And, he did it in a year when he also credited as the producer for new discs from Pierce Pettis, Jacob’s Trouble, John Austin, John Fischer and Vigilantes of Love.
"Sun comes up like a yellow bus tracking over oceans of dust / One day’s miracle is another man’s rut / But day keeps breaking like it always does / I’m not a loner / No sack-cloth and ashes / Just a heart on a tether with a vagabond mind," sings Heard in "A Broken Man." Here, and throughout Satellite Sky, Heard monitors humanity’s struggle for meaning and purpose in the midst of a culture that devalues the dignity of existence and honest expression.
His hopes come together most concretely in the face of the mind’s cruelest demons. In "Satellite Sky" he sings of his earliest memories of innocence, while desiring to instill a place of peace in this world for his own children. "Long Way Down" suggests "All God’s children learn to build and learn to watch their backs," because "It’s a race to stay alive, baby, it’s lawyers tax and steel / ’Til the life that you are living is the thing you never feel," but still he hopes "From the Golden Gate to the East Block states you can hear creation grown / ... Baby it’s a big world after all."
Heard, as usual, plays multiple instruments on the most rocking material of recent years. A rare 1939 electrical steel mandolin creates some of the edgy tone, but Heard also plays acoustic and electric guitars, and finds room in the mix for accordion, harmonica and occasional Hammond organ riffs. He’s joined by David Raven on drums, The Call’s Michael Been on bass, and former Bruce Cockburn sideman Fergus Jemison Marsh on stick, among other notables. Sam Phillips and Pam Dwinell-Miner sing a couple of backing vocals. But the heart and soul, breadth and depth of Satellite Sky is Mark Heard’s great body of songs, and his own inspired delivery.
My favorite of the pack, "The Orphans of God," grapples with this place in history, and our struggle as individuals to make sense of the gospel truth in a world busy with it’s own artificial realities. "Like bees in a bottle we are flying at fate / Beating our wings against the walls of this place / Unaware that the struggle is the blood of the proof / In choosing to believe the unbelievable truth / ... They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones and blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God."
The task of writing this review fell upon me at this time while Mark Heard is laying in a coma in intensive care with the second heart attack in the two weeks since Cornerstone festival. We pray and hope, but these words from Mark’s songs keep us honest. As I’ve listened repeatedly, seeking words of insight, and iota of reason for pains that come to us all, I have come back repeatedly to this lyric ... "We will always be remembered as the orphans of God." It is my prayer that Mark Heard returns to us in health and wholeness. But when my time is up, you can put those words on my stone.
Brian Q. Newcomb ( CCM, June 1992 )
Copyright © 1992 CCM Magazine
This final release of new music by Mark Heard remains one of his greatest. The entire album features an electric steel mandolin, which provides a high-pitched chime-y melody to every track. There are great lyrics all the way through. The passionate "Tip of My Tongue" bursts with an aggressive energy about the inability to express one's self. "Orphans of God" is a gentle track with subdued vocals - a heartfelt expression of the human condition. Things take a darker turn on "We Know Too Much," with a myth-like mysticism resonating with the Garden of Eden story, complemented by ominous instrumentation. The only shortcomings to this recording are its length and its lack of a follow-up. There is a lot of music here, and it's difficult to get through in just one sitting. The electric mandolin is nice, but 70 minutes worth is a little like eating too much candy. This record is best listened to in smaller doses. One can only wonder what other masterpieces might have lain in wait had Heard's life not been cut so short
Mark W.B. Allender ( AMG )
Mark Heard would be ill at ease in
today's perfected pitch, auto-tuned, Pro Tools world. When he produced others he would urge them to remember why they wrote their lyrics and to forget technique. He would often use the first or second take, faults and all, because it was the most authentic. On the rare occasion when he would record his own material the result was absolute bliss. The reason for the past tense is that Mark Heard passed away in 1992. Satellite Sky, the last album he recorded before his death, is now available from pastemusic.com.
Satellite Sky contains some of Heard’s best work, lyrically as well as in terms of songwriting. Almost as if he knew this was his last outing, he packed 15 songs onto this platter, and nary a one is a stinker. “Tip of My Tongue” opens the events, and it isn’t long before Heard’s voice is passionately yearning to know what is real: “Knock the scales from my eyes \ Knock the words from my lungs \ I want to cry out \ It’s on the tip of my tongue.” The title track immediately follows, lamenting the state of the world and the effect it has had on him: “It must be tough for my children / I’m hollow before my time.” “Big Wheels Roll” is an autobiographical revelation of his own experiences and difficulties with music executives who “wouldn’t know passion if it swallowed them whole.” Although a realist, Heard is not in love with despair, finding hope and joy in “Hammers and Nails” through the simple things such as the voice of his daughter, a faith in Christ and the trust of his family. The peppy “Lost on Purpose” is a personal favorite, recalling a married date in the city with its spray-painted brick walls, padlocked playgrounds, “bus-fume aphrodisiac” and the smell of the “electric sky.”
I’ve been listening to this album for two months, digesting it bit by bit, and each time something new sticks out, either a nuance of his poetic, symbolic lyrics or a hidden melody finally uncovered. Many of the songs hit as hard musically and they do lyrically, but you’d be hard pressed to find overly distorted electric guitars. Heard’s instrument of choice this time was an electric steel mandolin, although a broad variety of other instruments round out the sound, including the
Chapman stick, upright bass, acoustic guitar, baritone sax, hammered dulcimer and accordion. It’s difficult to believe that these traditionally folk instruments can be made to pack such a powerful rock punch, but such was Heard’s skill as a producer and engineer.
Thirteen years after its creation, Satellite Sky does not appear to have aged one bit. Not only are the lyrics timeless and apt, but the music has no shadow of sounding dated. If anything, the energy and passion captured with his production technique is better than the perfectly sterile albums common today. Admittedly the 70 minutes are not always easy to take in one sitting. Part of this “fault” is the high pitched electric mandolin, but a large portion is due to Heard’s unceasing fervor and cathartic venting of raw emotion, truly giving each song everything he has. Give Satellite Sky a try and find out why such musical luminaries as Bruce Cockburn, Bono, The Edge, Victoria Williams and Sam Phillips not only cited Heard as an influence but also considered it an honor to have called him a friend.
Jason Hoffman ( Whatzup, 01/12/2006 )
Satellite Sky ~ Lyrics / Credits / DISCOGRAPHY