There has always been a stunning disconnect between the look and the sound of Aaron Neville. From the waist up, Neville's physique is a massive inverted triangle, the imposing geometry of a dedicated bodybuilder. Set off by an earring and a rakish black birthmark over his right eye, it's a look that exudes raw power with a hint of danger. But when Neville starts to sing in his inimitable falsetto, it's as if angels have unfurled their wings and are hovering beatifically in the heavens.
A tattoo of Jesus on Neville's bulging right biceps unites the two impressions. But it is his embrace of gospel music, after a long, successful career with the funky New Orleans ensemble the Neville Brothers, that dispels any doubts about the gentle essence of his heart and soul.
Like "Devotion" from 2000, Neville's recently released "Believe" is a seamless mixture of devout original compositions, new and old gospel standards and kindred pop songs. Yet where its predecessor was enlivened by four-part harmonies and call-and-response, "Believe" is most compelling when it forsakes any hint of fire and brimstone in favor of resolute pacifism and contentment. The few tracks that do stir the otherwise prevailing calm -- remakes of the Neville Brothers' funky "Steer Me Right" and Bob Dylan's accusatory "Gotta Serve Somebody" -- sound needlessly agitated beside the soothing balm of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (rendered with a beauty that rivals Sam Cooke's classic version), the operatic understatement of "Ave Maria" and the evocative, ethereal melisma of "Amazing Grace."
Time and again, Neville shows he would rather coo than shout. He sands away the rough-hewn edges from Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light" (in the process tamping down the contribution of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band), transforms the pursuit of justice in Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" from political action to religious faith and vocally coats his lyrics to "I Believe" with the gentleness of morning dew. His engagement of the backup singers on "Oh Happy Day," while heartfelt, doesn't approach the ecstasy of the Edwin Hawkins original. And his inventive arrangement for "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" neatly ties an acoustic guitar line to his ever-gorgeous and graceful fluttering between alto and falsetto.
Compared to the durably memorable material he covers on "Believe," Neville's original songs are destined to sound drab. A noteworthy exception is "Let Go," in which Neville's love for Jesus appears to invert their traditional roles, and allows him to provide succor for Christ.
"I am with you on this journey, I'll be with you until the end of time," Neville warbles, his angelic voice aloft. "Jesus in my arms I will hold You / This world at times is so unkind / Walk with faith into His glory / Let go and let your spirit fly."
Aaron Neville is to appear March 25 and 26 at the Rams Head and March 27 at the Birchmere. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)