It's impossible, in 2017, to review the 2001 debut album from Sara Groves, Conversations, as if it was just released. I can't pretend that Groves hasn't released two of my all-time favorite records, 2009's Fireflies and Songs and 2015's Floodplain. There's a solid chance that, if I'd heard Conversations when it was new, I might have written Groves off as a pleasant but ordinary CCM artist. Yet now, knowing how she would grow as a songwriter, I can listen to Conversations with a different perspective. I can enjoy it as an album filled with hints of the greatness to come.
The album starts off strong with the title track, followed by lead single "The Word" and the soulful "Painting Pictures of Egypt." More than anything else on this record, "The Word" makes for a great single and is an obvious fit for early 00's CCM radio. The chorus echoes John 1:1, speaking of the timeless truth of the Word--in reference to both Scripture and Jesus Christ himself--then the bridge proclaims a handful of God's promises (most notably Romans 8:39-39). Between this and even just the song title of "Painting Pictures of Egypt," Groves clearly likes to focus on biblical images and references, but it's the title track that really sets the theme for the album (and debatably for her entire career). As she admits quite plainly, "I have no other way to communicate to you / That this is all that I have, this is all that I am." These songs are Conversations: with herself, with her husband, with her neighbors, and with God.
As a former English teacher, Sara Groves' greatest strength has always been her lyrics. Even the songs on this album that don't click musically are lovely lyrically. Her words are wound in the well-worn wisdom that comes with being a woman, a wife, and a daughter of God, but throughout Conversations, she enters into these dialogues with more questions than answers. This is most obvious on album highlight "How is it Between Us?," where she asks God, "When did I talk to you last / And what has happened since?" The acoustic guitars and percussion provide a perfect backdrop for such personal and honest questions; musically, "How is it Between Us?" could have fit perfectly on John Mayer's Room for Squares, which was also released in 2001. Other stripped-down tracks like "What Do I Know?" ironically make for the album's most fully-realized recordings. Elsewhere, songs like "Generations" and "The Journey is My Own" get bogged down in organs, strings, woodwinds, and choirs that do more to detract than to add to the proceedings. There's a nagging feeling that the production team didn't know whether they were working with the next Rich Mullins or the next Rebecca St. James. Producer Nate Sabin would have better luck on the following two albums, but Groves wouldn't come to find the sweet spot between her songwriting and big, glossy production until she started working with Brown Bannister on 2005's Add to the Beauty.
Another helpful piece of information that only comes with time is understanding Groves' trend of throwing one curveball on most of her records: one song that functions as a stylistic wildcard. Undoubtedly, that song here is "Cave of Adullum." For a listener unaware of this trend, it could be easy to question the song's inclusion. Why have one song that sounds like it's from a different album? Is Sara trying too hard or attempting to show off that she isn't a cookie-cutter Christian artist? These were the questions I asked when I first heard "Setting Up the Pins," the curveball on the aforementioned album Fireflies and Song, which served as my introduction to Groves' music. There, "Setting Up" is an awkwardly out-of-place, rollicking country song that completely breaks up the pace of an album otherwise comprised of somber ballads and soft rock. It took me a while to finally come around to liking that particular curveball, but here, "Cave of Adullum" is more obviously a standout, both in style and quality. The title refers to the hiding place of David when King Saul was seeking to murder the prophesied successor to his throne. The dark, jazzy song is simply gorgeous, and it summons Groves' most passionate vocal performance on the album before she backs away to let the piano, flamenco guitar, and fiddle take turns soloing through a jaw-dropping bridge. Groves pulls off quite the feat on this song, too, by telling David's story while making it totally relatable. Even with lines like, "Remind me what anointing oil is for," and "How does a shepherd become a king?," the song is no less relevant than "What Do I Know?," a song where Groves struggles to find the words to say to encourage her aging neighbor.
If I were introducing Sara Groves' music to a friend--which I often do--I wouldn't start with Conversations. (I'd probably pick Tell Me What You Know, her glossiest, most diverse and upbeat album to date.) If you're reading this review as a total newbie to Sara Groves, I sincerely hope something I've written has piqued your interest in at least one of her records. Her late-career output is so special partially because Groves is the rare artist who continually fine-tunes her craft with each record. Still, that doesn't mean this album is merely worth skipping over as a footnote in Groves' catalogue. Much to the contrary, for anyone who's already fallen in love with any era of Groves' music, her entire discography opens up like the wellspring it is, abundant with astute observations on the Christian life, marriage, parenting, and suffering, all filtered through her beautiful song craft and plaintive vocals. I'd be shocked if anyone esteemed Conversations as Sara Groves' finest effort, but by dismissing this album as whole (as I might have done back in 2001), we would surely be missing out.JFH Reader Review: Review date: 2/20/17, written by Chase Tremaine for Jesusfreakhideout.com
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