2017 (almost two year ago now) was a pretty tough year for me in that I had a work-life setback that threw me for a loop. Though the details are decidedly mundane and ordinary, it threw me into a funk that represented the lowest I’ve felt in my adult life. Looking back I understand where the depression came from, like looking back at a play in slow motion on a football broadcast. I had just graduated from a literature grad school program (with honors, thank you very much) and finished up a dream job as a worship leader at a summer camp (complete with a lakeside cabin for the family!). Then a crazy series of setbacks professionally sent me reeling into the fall. That season is magical here in New England, but I felt as dull and lifeless as a New Hampshire February. I was stuck and falling fast, and in a despondency I’ve not really encountered before. (I have a fairly “up” personality, and that has brought me through a few downtimes.)
Thankfully my close family and Church family rallied around me, and supported me in a way that I wish every person could experience. Systems of support are critical, and the joy that I have in thinking about these people, and their role in my life is a blessing that I’ll carry with me always.
Thankfully 2018 has been much better. I feel resurrected, with new energy and focus. Part of this is due to a friend who insisted I exercise with him, and gradually rounding into shape was a needed thing. Also, my lovely wife and I took a second (or third?) honeymoon to a spectacular local that recharged my batteries. There were a few professional steps forward, and it’s the kind of year I’ll take. There was even a major car accident in there that didn’t throw me. (Woe to me if that had happened a year earlier!)
And so, when I listen to Andrew Peterson’s masterful Resurrection Letters Vol. 1 (including the completely necessary prologue), I rejoice that resurrection both occurred in an epic, historic fashion to save my soul, and that personal resurrection is constantly happening in my own life. It’s the grace of God that put wonderful people in my life (a “three-fold chord is not easily broken") and brought my feet out of the pit (out of the mirey clay). Peterson captures both the brokenness of this world and the light that Christ brought by both entering into it along side of us (at his birth, celebrated at Christmastime) and ultimately his death and resurrection for the sins of the world. Peterson has now made a full cycle celebrating the life of Jesus in his classic Christmas project Behold The Lamb and now this three-part meditation on the events of the crucifixion.
This is what I wrote in my review:
Not since Star Wars Episode 1 has a prequel taken so long to arrive, and unlike that abomination of a film, Andrew Peterson's Resurrection Letters Vol. 1 (and the prologue of songs that starts the action off) was utterly worth the wait. Ten years after Vol. 2 was released, this walk-through of the death and resurrection of Christ in epic song form matches Peterson's beloved work on Christmas, Behold The Lamb, with its nuanced storytelling and artful and epic songwriting. Kicking off with the haunting "Last Words (Tenebrae)", Peterson layers the seven last statements of Christ in a rhythmic and repeating melodic pattern that circles around and demonstrates Peterson's masterful touch with a phrase and a melody. Walking through the death of Christ on the cross and the heavy atmosphere of that day, the prologue deftly sets the stage for the triumphal following act. "His Heart Beats" leads the resurrection portion of the main album with a celebratory tune that ranks with Peterson's finest moment of songwriting. "Remember Me" (based on the words of the penitent thief on one side of Christ) and "I've Seen Too Much" show Peterson spinning well-known sections of scripture (Like St. Peter's confession of who Jesus truly was) into something new, with fresh angles and deep insight. With echoes of such classic songwriters as David Gray, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, Peterson's musical pallet is growing wider every time out of the gate. Andrew Peterson is so much more than just a songwriter at this point. With four novels, a thriving blog and a film to his credit (along with ten-plus fantastic albums), he's approaching C.S. Lewis territory with his poetic and beautiful exploration of faith and the human condition. Listening to both volumes of Resurrection Letters is to listen to a master at the height of his craft, diving into the most important and epic rescue story ever told.
Lauren Daigle’s Look Up Child (my favorite album title of the year) likewise spoke to hope. The title track is a call to heed the Psalmist’s advice and “look up to the hills” in times of trouble (the ancient Psalms would often use the geography of Israel as metaphors for the Lord.).
Here’s what I wrote about this album:
The title track is perhaps the best song here, and serves as a pulsating anthem of hope. Again referencing the Psalms, with the instructions to "look up" in times of trouble; the lyrics are poetically rendered in a way that gives hope without being cloying or speaking down to the listener. That might be Daigle's greatest strength on Look Up Child, the relentless, encouraging, positive drive in the music and lyrics. The theme of hope can be handled in hackneyed fashion in much of Christian music, but Daigle takes her calling seriously, and handles the theme deftly. Ending with the old hymn, "Turn Your Eyes On Jesus," is a great way to bring the album's theme full circle. There may be a few too many slow-rise ballads here, but Look Up Child is a very good follow-up album, and in terms of sheer quality and sophistication, it's also one of the year's best and most mature work.
Remedy Drive wove hopefulness into their dynamite album North Star. The title itself is a reference for the star that runaway southern slaves would look to for guidance on their journeys north to freedom.
Here’s what I wrote about this album:
Dealing with huge themes (human trafficking, militarism, nationalism, consumerism, war mongering) within a Christian context is rarely done this well, and this tunefully. Remedy Drive's sonic template here suggests a slightly lower budget Coldplay or Radiohead, but the combination of a powerhouse message against the backdrop of gorgeous and urgent songwriting makes The North Star a contender for best album of the year. There is a vital need for Old Testament style 'speaking truth to power' in these confusing times, and Remedy Drive has crafted an epic, challenging and heart-breaking record to do just that.
Matthew Perryman Jones (who had my favorite album cover of the year) wrote about waking up from a long period of slumber (the metaphorical kind) on The Waking Hours and seeing the world anew. This resonated with me too.
Here’s a piece of my review for that album:
With a strong theme of waking up to what is truly important, and taking the time to examine your life, The Waking Hours is as introspective and searching as it is beautiful. It's the rare form of music that captures the feeling of looking at a sunset in a beautiful place and letting the scene spur something deeper inside you. Art, at its best, hints at another world than this one, and Matthew Perryman Jones continues to exceed in writing the sort of evocative tunes that call for scenery and deeper thought. The Waking Hours is perhaps aptly named, in that its songs are mostly of the sleepy kind (for truly upbeat MPJ, check out Land Of The Living). But they serve the album's theme well. It's a record that's perfect for the winter months of contemplation and introspection and you'd be hard pressed to hear a more gorgeous slice of sadness and hope this year.
No band does the theme of “joy” any better right now than Rend Collective. But on Good News, the band added some needed lament to their manic energy, and released their best, most cohesive album. It’s one that brings into the light all of the emotions and experiences of life:
Joy is an elusive thing. Happiness comes and goes like the ocean tide, but true joy--the deep-down, foundational kind--is a quality to be celebrated and cultivated. And no band does ‘joy’ like the Irish quintet, Rend Collective. And their new album, Good News, is a masterful and rowdy celebration of what brings true joy to a soul, the Gospel message. Gospel is an old English world for “good news” (‘good’ plus “spell“, which was a phrase for news before it came to mean something magical, as in the old-timey phrase “sit a spell“.) Similar to the phrase “Godspeed” (both words have little to do with the Lord, the “god” in both cases was a shortening of ‘good”), Gospel has come to mean a host of different things in the modern day, like the genre of music or a kind of church denomination. But the core idea has remained. Followers of Christ have responded to the best kind of news, that through Christ and his death and resurrection, we can be restored to fellowship with the divine. But too often, that good news can get lost or swamped by the paranoia of times. After a rough 2016 and ‘17 (particularly here in the U.S.), Rend Collective has decided to unabashedly shine a light, and not just curse at the darkness. And the great thing about Good News is that they have widened their musical palette while still cranking up the energy and rowdiness of their past albums.
The Choir’s Bloodshot was the most emotionally devastating album I heard this year, with main lyricist (and friend of mine) Steve Hindalong tracing the path of his divorce, and the ramifications of seeing a longtime marriage end. But there was hope there too:
You aren't likely to hear a heartbreaking subject like divorce treated with this level of transparency from a standpoint of faith in many places. Bloodshot is a heartbreaking and moving listen, with a veteran band's level of attention to detail. The music fits the theme just right, and while it might be a tough listen for many, it is an important conversation that The Choir puts to music beautifully. With the depth of a fine film, this veteran band keeps moving forward through all the mine fields that life in our fallen world has to offer.
Audrey Assad’s Evergreen had a title and theme that I could get behind. Here in dear old New England, the evergreen trees are what’s left after the glorious fall colors have left the deciduous trees barren. Assad’s use of this metaphor for survival (and thriving) in harsh conditions hit home for me. The album is as lush and full as the pine forests in my beloved home state of Maine, and my newfound home here in New Hampshire.
Mat Kearney’s musings on relationships (CRAZYTALK), Plumb’s continued focus on healing (Beautifully Broken) and Blanca’s theme of recovery and healing (in the wake of her mother’s terminal illness) on Shattered all resonated with me too.
In the final analysis, it’s difficult to call these albums the “best” of the year. But I can easily call them my favorite. Music is a gift from above, a way to parse the events of your life and give them a soundtrack that resonates in years to come. In a year where the sun came back out again, these were the songs that brought that theme to the surface and cause me to thank the Lord for continued resurrection.
--- Alex 'Tin Can' Caldwell