Out of the Loop 02: Esther Lee

Esther Lee

Esther Lee

The cover of this album warrants explaining. Let me begin…*ahem*:

As the story goes (allegedly, the details are unknown publicly), Esther Lee recorded Where Glory Began from her hospital bed while suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness. In her time of grieving, she recorded a collection of songs – a sort of final lament for a life lived and a therapeutic acceptance of the unknowable passage into death (When this happened we do not know – the closest I can find to an “official” release date is 1974.)

The subject matter, and mystery surrounding this record, means that we can fall into the back story regardless of its validity. All we know of Ms. Lee is this half hour of music, featuring, exclusively, her wonderfully delicate voice. It feels like finding the private recordings of a family member you were, by sheer will of time, unable to meet – a small artifact that contains the most intimate account of a life passed.

The first 10 minutes are intensely immersive. I am especially taken, even still, by “Dust on My Picture Frame” – her delivery sounds painfully restrained.  The lyrics, tethered with regret and loss, convincingly sound like the meditations of a woman staring her own mortality in the face. You believe Esther, and if you listen closely between the gaps in her singing, you may even hear your heart breaking (if hearts actually broke, that is).

As the album progresses, though, things start turning kind of funny. It begins with the first name drop of the big man in the sky (you know the one), which seems to trigger what was apparently a suppressed urge Ms. Lee had for singing unrelenting, dehumanizing, and tone-shatteringly upbeat worship music. From track 5 onward, our initial impressions are betrayed in favor of elbow pushing suggestions that, especially in times of mortal certainty, we owe our lives to said big man. In the process, the hurt, torment, regret, and fear that we so irrevocably associate with dying are undermined completely.

This shift is not to say that the songs are illegitimate, or that Esther had not handpicked the tunes herself, but it does not settle well with me on many levels. The sequencing of tracks, firstly, is incredibly jarring. That it started sounding very remorseful and then shifted dramatically into more “optimistic” worship songs suggests that there may have been an agenda here, if not from Esther, than the people producing the material. There also appears to be moments in which the production value shifts (ie, the recording sounds less scratchy or there seems to be a pronounced echo effect on Esther’s voice.) This could possibly be post-recording techniques later added, but the discrepancy is undeniably suspicious.

It is possible the story is sound (I write about this record in hopes that it is), but with some of my past experiences with “underground” religious music (see Forrest McCullough ‘s Flight F-I-N-A-L and the New Creation’s Troubled), I would not put it past a select group of religious fanatics to pull a stunt like this, or worse, to exploit a woman who is in fact dying. Regardless, Where Glory Began is a mysterious little oddity that is worth the initial discovery, if only to carry on the mystery.

More information about this record – perhaps the most you can find on the net – is available on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog website, as well as the entire album in mp3 format.  Its guaranteed to kill the mood of any party (I know this from experience) so be sure to show your friends!


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