Devotional pop artist Jon Guerra and his terrific album, Keeper of Days, was my biggest musical surprise of 2020. Releasing in April of what would turn out to be several years of unrest and chaos in the world, there's no way he could have known how prescient and healing this album would become. Needless to say, the album was and is a masterstroke, both critically acclaimed and beloved by fans. So how do you top or match it on your next try? The temptation, and road most traveled, would say "go bigger." The answer comes in the form of Ordinary Ways, the thirteen-song follow up, and with it, I believe he wisely chooses a different direction.
Guerra avoids trying to match the grandiose moments of Keeper of Days, opting to allow Ordinary Ways to describe the mundane majesty of everyday life. While its predecessor was full of big moments and some righteous anger over injustice, Guerra seems more preoccupied with beautiful simplicity this time around. He hasn't exhausted his questions by any stretch, but asks them with an earnest longing while maintaining a hopeful reverence that God's ways are not his ways. Musically, Jon leans more into sonic beauty and simplicity than any grand statement or even the gut punch of a song like "Citizens." He does this while combining straightforward lyrics with splendid string swells, pretty piano parts, and alluring acoustic guitar picking. Though, make no mistake, simple here does not mean mailed-in or of lesser value. On the contrary, it fits this reviewer's current season of mood and needs perfectly, with each song present slowly working itself through my heart.
Highlights aren't isolated on the front or back end of the album but are sprinkled throughout, making for an even, enjoyable, and full-album listen. Both of the opening tracks are good, but I wouldn't say the album truly hits its stride until the four-song run of "Let a Little Light In," "How Long," "My Transfiguration," and "The Lord's Prayer." Truly, they work nicely as a suite of songs building off of one another. The plea to "let a little light in/My heart is in a panic/don't leave me in the darkness" may resonate with anyone similarly struggling with the apparition of anxiety. The passionate build leads seamlessly into the quiet yearning of "How Long," as Guerra further expresses, "how long how long/will the weight be this heavy/how long how long/can we bend Til we break/Cause the rain isn't good until it's fallen/and your grace isn't good until it's spent." Then we flow into "My Transfiguration," with its gorgeous string swells and instrumental outro setting up "The Lord's Prayer" as Guerra concludes the strong set of four tunes.
Later in the tracklist, the instrumental "Unraveling" similarly sets up two additional favorites in "Like You, Lord" and "You Are All I'm Worth." These unhurried instrumentals on Ordinary Ways make great use of space, not feeling the need to cram songs full of words or musical ideas. This makes for a calming listening experience often allowing the music to be the conclusion to the lyrics that brought up the questions and longings. Lastly of note is the tight and pleasing harmony in "Thank You, Lord," another in a string of lush and satisfying musical moments that Guerra and his wife Valerie do so well. Major kudos to her backing vocals, harmonies, and violin parts which are all crucial to the pleasing aesthetics of the album.
As far as criticisms go, it's a minor one, but I don't love the track sequencing. It may not be the case at all, but it could be a potential hindrance to new listeners sticking around past the first two tunes. That would be a shame because, while they're both good songs, they aren't the most arresting. Not sticking it out means a listener would miss what I think is the strongest portion of the album. That, and I wish that Guerra had flipped the order of "Thank You, Lord," and "One Thing I Ask" to close the record with the stronger of the two songs.
Ultimately, Ordinary Ways doesn't strike me as immediately transcendent an experience as Keeper of Days, but it is a high-quality listen. However, it does fit nicely alongside Gsuerra's other works. I am grateful that Jon didn't cave to any pressure to "measure up" or "exceed" his past, his authenticity remains a tremendous partner to his art. He continues to be a voice in modern CCM worth listening to and I look forward to spending additional time with the album to see if it will have staying power beyond this year. For now, it's an excellent album of 2023 and a contender for my year-end Top 10. This one's for listeners of Guerra, John Van Deusen, and Chris Renzema, or fans of devotional pop music best experienced on ordinary days.- Review date: 5/11/23, written by Josh Balogh of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Thorndale Records
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