One of the qualities of Christian-themed musical material that stands out for me is that it’s often created by men and women who have faced adversity and are full of optimism despite those travails.
Coppe Cantrell has definitely faced hard times. Her husband, music producer and all-around mover and shaker Johnny Jackson, aka Johnny “J”, unexpectedly died while serving a brief stint in jail for a DUI. She picked up the pieces, however, and soon felt another calling pull on her. Her music world experience included several small contributions to releases from Big Skye, 2Pac, and Coolio, prepping her for the moment when she felt compelled to begin writing and singing her own material.
It’s informed by hard-won belief and ultimately celebratory. Her new album The Breastplate of Righteousness features thirteen cuts that attest to Cantrell’s spirituality and unshakable faith. These tracks likewise burn with her fiery intelligence and irrepressible personality. Even the first track, somewhat of an anomaly on the release with its explicitly African, even ska-like, tone, announces itself with such self-assurance and verve that you have to pay attention. “War Cry” is a call to spiritual arms, never strident, but assertive and highly musical.
“Work on You” is the first inkling newcomers will get about Catrell’s flexibility with her primary subject matter. If you think there’s only one or two types of songs you can write in a Christian vein, think again. The predominant mode she writes in shows Cantrell reaching outside of herself, trying to open avenues for the same redemption she’s experienced to reach others. “Work on You” is one of the best examples of that.
It has a much more straightforward slant than the first composition. Her mix of religious and pop worlds reaches an early peak with the song “Dance in the Dark” and it highlights how Cantrell’s ear-catching depiction of her relationship with God and personal experiences finds such fertile ground in her imagination. “Dance in the Dark” shows off her modern pop songwriting skills at or near their zenith. “Set Me Free” matches the album’s best. It’s a fiery and rhythmically alive pop masterpiece that once again pulls up the deepest of performances from Cantrell. She lives out the storms and triumphs alike for her listeners.
She achieves a different feeling with the album’s title number. “The Breastplate of Righteousness” tempers the boisterous so Cantrell can develop a more thoughtful sonic landscape. There isn’t a wasted note in the song’s music, it has a stark spartan beauty that perfectly accentuates the lyrics, and there likewise isn’t a single extraneous word during the song. It’s a perfectly modulated performance, particularly at this point in the collection’s running order.
One of the album’s overlooked merits is her sure sense for track listing. Discerning listeners will notice she’s put a lot of thought into the sequencing, and it unfolds at a measured pace. “Come and Accept Jesus” has a commanding, exhortative sound. The closing song is another but that, however, in terms of its singing, arranging, and instrumental character. Cantrell can proudly claim the mantle of an entertainer as well as a missionary if she likes the latter because songs such as the last track never forget to enchant our ears. Coppe Cantrell’s The Breastplate of Righteousness is a better album for it.