The Prodigal will not be for everyone. Fourteen songs with a religious focus and often laced with lines of real poetry, no matter how well-written, will not reach some people. It is their loss. It is this reviewer’s humble belief that anyone can listen to these fourteen tracks and hear many moments of moving beauty without feeling offended or otherwise angered by what they hear. Any agenda here is focused on people living their best possible lives, understanding their place in the world, and resolving long-standing conflicts still haunting them. He often times relies on Biblical language for the songs.
“Hosanna” opens the album and provides an excellent example. His talent for mixing such language with every day speech, however, is a secret edge cutting across any lines dividing listeners from the material. The Prodigal begins with a folk/rock sound it calls upon elsewhere during the release but, make no mistake; it isn’t the only card Raybuck plays. The song’s point of view makes it an excellent opener as well. He will turn toward deeper matters as the collection rolls on, but “Hosanna” packs real substance will not dragging listeners immediately into the deep end.
The title song is an obvious keeper. It is deceptively ambitious, as well – it is no less than engaging with one of Western culture’s foundational stories when you tangle with the Bible’s story of the prodigal son and his eventual return. It’s one of the most human moments in the New Testament, without question, and the enduring resonance of the story owes no small debt to the teller’s ability to divorce religious content from the narrative. No appeals to God are needed; the human appeal is quite sufficient.
It’s equally obvious that the song, story, and lyric mean a great deal to him. Raybuck’s vocal deals with the lines as sensitively as any surgeon might. He maintains the same focus with later songs as well. “Long Time Coming” surges forward with a simple but memorable instrumental hook and the earnest, impassioned vocal ranks among Raybuck’s best. It’s a song of testimony, first and foremost, but never at a distance – it’s romping and gets up close to you.
“My Sufferings” begins life as another near-ethereal acoustic themed musical spin, but Raybuck pulls several rabbits out of his hat along the way. The seemingly incongruous changes along the way ring true with your first pass as his instincts serve him in a way few other performers can claim. These are bold juxtapositions that he makes payoff for listeners each time. “Why I Sing” is another of the album’s highlights thanks to its strong melodic content and, in particular, a towering guitar solo during the song’s second half.
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The penultimate cut “The Pathway” is one of the album’s best. This mature and thoughtful piece runs through a series of predictable changes with such graceful artistry that you forgive any predictability. Raybuck’s lyric is one of the finest he’s written for the collection and comes at an excellent place in the album’s running order. It’s the true climax of the album for me, though the final track “Who’s My Neighbor?” is well worth your time. Raybuck has the soul of a poet and it shines through brightest during songs such as these and concludes The Prodigal in a way few, if any, of his contemporaries could match.