Richard Shindell was born near Paterson, New Jersey, the waning industrial town immortalized by William Carlos Williams, and like Williams he has a gift for evoking a whole world through a few vivid details. Shindell’s fables of guilt, death, and redemption (subject matter in which he’s well versed, as he was once a candidate for the priesthood) are dark and complex, yet his language is so pristine and his melodies are so richly textured that even when the story line gets murky, the imagery keeps you riveted and the tunes keep you humming. “The Ballad of Mary Magdalen,” included on his new live recording, Courier (Signature Sounds), portrays the saint as an old woman in rags, lovelorn and obsessed, wondering how “the tenderness that I shared with Him / became a heresy.” In “On a Sea of Fleur de Lis,” an acolyte tries to persuade the Blessed Virgin herself to change her back into a witch so she can reclaim the power stripped from her by the Christian patriarchy. Even in more secular settings, Shindell’s spirituality makes itself felt: in “Are You Happy Now?” a lover leaves on Halloween night (“I smashed your pumpkin on the floor / the candle flickered at my feet”), and “Next Best Western” portrays an exhausted trucker haunted by the uplifting cadences of a radio preacher (“I am wretched, I am tired / But the preacher is on fire / And I wish I could believe”). And then of course there’s “Transit,” one of Shindell’s darkest yet most hopeful parables: after ignoring a nun stranded at the roadside, a horde of drivers blinded by rage mysteriously miss their exits and plunge into oblivion. Meanwhile the nun makes it to her destination–the state penitentiary, where she glories in an evening of song accompanied by a jailhouse choir who “[pour] out their hopes / For what’s left of eternity / To Sister Maria, her soul like a prism / For the light of forgiveness / On all of their faces.” Friday, April 12, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C. Taylor Cruthers.