In Brief: There’s a quiet depth in these simple songs. I only hope that SCC can still write this powerfully when things are going great and he’s happy again.
We’re all familiar with the trope of the “tortured artist”. It’s been said that some of the greatest art out there was fueled by great personal pain. And while I’ve often found this to be true as I’ve related to poignant songs about difficult breakups, deaths of loved ones, etc., I’ve also found that an artist not normally known for being tragic can come across as misguided and maudlin when forced to follow up a hit album in the wake of a personal tragedy. It’s not that the artist shouldn’t have the right to open up about their pain or anything – I consider it commendable for them to be able to articulate their innermost feelings about stuff that should honestly be none of our business most of the time – but some are more skilled at this than others. Then throw in the extra qualifier that the suffering artist makes Christian music, and you’ve got another set of rules and regulations making it difficult for the artist to succeed during a difficult phase of their personal life, as the gatekeepers of radio and retail flinch at the sight of conflicts that can’t be wrapped up by the final chorus of a four-minute song, and honest questions or even doubts that don’t lead to firm, platitude-heavy answers within that same timespan. What’s an artist (or a listener, for that matter) to do when the harsh reality of life conflicts with the idyllic vision of it that most “sanctified” entertainment has provided for them?
It’s for this and many other reasons that I don’t envy what Steven Curtis Chapman and his family had to go through two years ago, when his five-year-old adopted daughter Maria was killed in a tragic mishap involing their own vehicle in their own driveway. Despite whatever ambivalence I’d built up toward Steven’s music over the years (having once been a big fan but gradually feeling like I’d outgrown him after being largely disappointed by All Things New in 2004 and the mostly-going-through-the-motions This Moment in 2007), this is the kind of tragedy I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. People have turned their backs on the Christian faith for far less. And even for those determined to stay the course and keep the faith, something as shocking as the death of a child often gets followed up by well-meaning, but misinformed fellow Christians who offer ridiculous platitudes like “God needed a little girl in Heaven”, or more troublingly, “There must be some sin in your family that God’s trying to deal with.” The attempts of armchair theologians to explain the ways of God that are supposed to be higher than ours often just pour salt in the world. So it’s amazing to me that not only did Steven and his wife Mary Beth Chapman remain resolute in their beliefs during this tragedy, but that Steven dedicated his next album, Beauty Will Rise, to the grieving process and the honest questions that arose during that process. It’s a rare glimpse of a place where we’d probably all like to believe that we’d remain faithful and trust God, but where doing so is unbelievably hard even for the best of us. And ironically, it makes for some of Chapman’s best songwriting in years. It seems strange to say that, because I wouldn’t want someone to have to go through something that awful just so I could like their music better. Like I said, I wouldn’t wish this on the man in a million years. But I have great respect for his attempts to make something good out of one of the worst things that could have possibly happened to him.
If I was hard on Steven before, it was because I felt like he struck an uneasy balance between songs that rallied the youth group (see classic tracks like “The Great Adventure”, “King of the Jungle”, “Lord of the Dance”, etc. that were huge when I was part of the target audience) and well-meaning but somewhat bland folk/pop-type ballads that felt a lot like your youth group leader saying, “Alright, settle down kids, it’s time for the lesson now.” That’s not to say that the upbeat, poppy stuff never had anything meaningful behind it or that the ballads weren’t sometimes poignant and performed with understated class. But after a while I got tired of the flip-flopping between the indistinguishable adult contemporary stuff and the “ransack my kids’ record collections and try anything once” approach that started to reveal Chapman’s age as the years went by. I don’t mean to bag on Chapman, just to say that I was in between places in terms of the audience he was trying to hit. But now, with such a heavy subject as his daughter’s death as the impetus behind the songwriting, it would seem almost disrespectful to throw yet another attempt at recreating “Dive” in there. It would be similarly disrespectful to load up a song with the slick, gloppy production values that some of his past ballads fell victim to, while keeping the subject matter at a distance as part of a bad for universal appeal. Steven’s dealt with tragic deaths before in songs like “With Hope” (purportedly written about the Columbine shootings), “Last Day on Earth”, and even a pair of tracks from Declaration that were tangentially about the death of missionary Jim Elliot. But it always required consulting the liner notes to get the backstory.
Beauty Will Rise, by comparison, is specific where it needs to be. There are extensive liner notes detailing how the various songs were born during the grieving process, but even if you grabbed this thing from iTunes, you couldn’t get through the first two tracks without it being clear that a little girl close to Steven had died unexpectedly. This is a tricky balance for any artist to strike, since 12 songs about this one subject could be absolutely overwhelming. But there are hopeful moments to be found here and there (the album’s title should clue you in on that much), and the songs that are more specific help to inform the songs that are more general meditations on dealing with doubt and trusting God – songs which I suspect might have felt perfunctory and faded into the wallpaper on your average SCC album. The music remains appropriately understated as a result, not being afraid to take the occasional creative twist and run with it, but also sounding refreshingly sparse on some of the simpler acoustic guitar or piano-based songs, with the strings giving it more of a “chamber music” approach than a “weepy canned film soundtrack” approach where they are used. Steven even committed to doing a lot of the vocals in one take to give it a hint of rawness, rather than doing the usual multiple takes to get a vocal performance that might be considered technically superior. I wouldn’t want every SCC album to be like this of course, but it’s notable that the first disc on which he takes a fully adult contemporary approach turns out to be his best in years.
1. Heaven Is the Face
The opening track and first single is just about as lovely a tribute to Maria as anyone could have asked for. It’s got a light, but steady acoustic guitar strum that builds gently as Steven’s prayerful lyrics move from a description of Heaven as the face of his little girl, whom he misses dearly, to a chorus that admits “God, I know it’s all of this and so much more.” There are gentle touches like piano and strings, but nothing overwhelming to distract from the simple beauty of this confession, this attempt to reconcile theological truths he understands in his head about the incomprehensible vastness of the afterlife with the simple, emotional truth that he misses his daughter like crazy. It’s sweet without being excessively sappy, and it’s the understated nature of the song that gives it just enough hope to make it work without feeling manipulative.
2. Beauty Will Rise
The title track might be the closest to the poppy, anthemic approach of past hits like “Speechless” as this album gets, but it arrives at this point by contrasting Steven’s darkest moment of despair with the promise of joy coming in the morning that perhaps he couldn’t yet grasp when he wrote the song, but knew somehow must still lie ahead. Your typical CCM pop hit doesn’t open with a line like “It was the day the world went wrong/I screamed ’til my voice was raw/And watched through the tears as everything came crashing down”, and it certainly doesn’t play around with stuff like a 7/4 time signature. (I don’t think I’ve heard SCC do something this cool with an unorthodox time signature since “Next 5 Minutes”, actually.) The hammering of piano chords sets the pace, but it becomes a full-blown chamber pop affair with the strings, bells, gongs and whatever else that chime in during the chorus. One might accuse Steven of jumping from the problem to the solution too soon with the joyous refrain of “Out of these ashes, beauty will rise!”, but you have to remember that this was written while he was still amongst the ashes. This sets it apart from other CCM songs that might try a little too early on to promise “it’s all gonna be alright”, because it’s the sound of a man trying to reassure his heart of what he has learned of God’s promises to him. The song’s got a symphonic sweep to it that flows wonderfully from beginning to end, making that unusual rhythm sound like the most natural thing in the world. For my money, it’s the best song SCC’s written since “Bring It On” in 2001.
Calm, tranquil, yet insistent quarter notes from the piano drift throughout this song, a gentle meditation prompted by a drawing Maria had made during her final day on this Earth, which had those three simple letters scribbled on it. Again, Steven’s anguish is contrasted with the simple hope of a childlike faith. Here, he personifies the things God is trying to tell him as the voice of his daughter, as if speaking to him from Heaven, already seeing the outcome of God’s plans for her father that she knows he’ll one day be able to see for himself. The phrasing is really simple here, but it almost needs to be, since the roles between father and child are kind of reversed here – he’s still mortal, still shielded from the big picture, while she’s been welcomed through those pearly gates and had all of her questions answered, and now just wants her dad to know what she knows. It makes me a little weepy, but it’s also an intriguing concept.
4. Just Have to Wait
More of an easygoing, folksy approach is taken here – I like hearing SCC do the fingerpicking thing on more of an “organic” song like this. I’m tempted to ding him slightly for the line “Well, I can’t wait to see your smile again/The one where your eyes disappear”, because he already mentioned the disappearing eyes thing in “Heaven Is the Face”, and I’d like to think that this isn’t the only physical characteristic of his own daughter that he misses seeing every day. (Plus, he’s got two other Chinese kids, right?) That little nitpick aside, this song is filled with the longing of a father to have his entire family reunited, and I love how he considers the perspective of Maria’s mother and her siblings, anticipating their joy in seeing her again. (The line “I can’t wait to watch your brother’s face/When he can finally see with his own eyes that everything’s okay” is especially striking, since one of Steven’s sons was the driver involved in the accident, and I cannot even imagine the amount of guilt that one would feel after having something like that happen.)
This is the first moment on the record where I feel like Steven takes more of a general focus, not referencing his daughter as specifically, but just dealing generally with brokenness and doubt. It’s a mid-tempo song, driven by light piano and a simple guitar strum, and while this doesn’t really stand out to me as much as some of the other songs, it’ll do. It’s a simple exercise in reminding himself of God’s faithfulness even when he does not know how to have faith. Some days I think this song could have dug a bit deeper, but then, I’ve been through my own tough situations where I’ve felt like if I can’t believe God is good and have faith in Him now, then it doesn’t really mean much for me to say I believe these things later when things seem like they’re going well. I see the heart behind the song, and that helps me to appreciate it a little more. That said, it would probably feel like filler on another SCC album.
Mmmmm… more delicious fingerpicking. It’s almost too gentle for some of Steven’s anxious questions, but I really can’t complain, because he’s given it all a compelling melody. It takes some amount of transparency to start off a song by asking “Who are You, God? For You are turning out to be so much different than I imagined”, and to later ask something like “How could You, God? How could You be so good and strong, and make a world that could be so painful?” All understandable questions when the stuff you’ve held onto since Sunday school comes crashing headlong into an unspeakable tragedy that you figure a loving God wouldn’t allow to happen. It’s tricky to express such questions and yet still sound reverent, and I figure some amount of fist-shaking at the sky would be warranted here, but I think it’s also good to hear that such thoughts can be expressed with an attitude of trust still permeating the words. How do we perceive God when we have absolutely no clue what He’s doing or why? This song is Steven’s way of dealing with that challenge.
7. Our God Is in Control
Piano and guitar play a slow duet here for one of the most intimate reflections on the album. Steven sounds vulnerable, almost tearful as he opens with another simple yet poignant lyric: “This is not how it should be… This is not how it should be… But this is how it is.” Mary Beth Chapman shares a writing credit here, and it’s easy to think of this as a prayer offered up by the two of them, with its hushed refrain of “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord” couched in between its admissions of not understanding what God is doing. it’s as if they’ve come closer to really understanding what such a simple statement really means after being put in a position of having no certain options to rely on other than God. The faithful all hope that they’d react this way in the fact of tragedy, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we hope we’ll never have to find out.
8. February 20th
Another lovely piano melody forms the backbone of another beautiful song, and this one might be the most personal and poignant on the entire album. Steven describes a simple day in Maria’s life, one merely three months before her death, in which she starts to grapple with the big questions during the otherwise routine actions of simply being a kid. Steven’s voice once again bears just a hint of being at its breaking point as he wistfully recounts the day that mommy and daddy did their best to clumsily explain the Gospel to a curious 5-year-old. This is the day that Steven believes she first understood and believed in Jesus – essentially, the day she was saved. All theological issues of “age of accountability” and whether a child can fully grasp what they’re signing up for when making such a statement of belief aside, it’s likely a story that would make most Christian parents feel like kindred spirits. I like that Steven included some of the mundane, everyday details here. They add a genuine, “you are there” sort of feeling to it, and if someone can’t relate because their kid didn’t do or say the exact same thing (or because they don’t have kids), then well, phooey on them. In an age of generic, one-size-fits-all Christian radio singles, it’s nice to see a CCM veteran embrace the value of the song as a storytelling device.
9. God Is It True (Trust Me)
Picking up the tempo slightly is this rambling, acoustic guitar-based song, which finds Steven asking childlike questions of God, as if wanting to see Him through the eyes of his daughter and her newfound belief. His questions are simple – with the whole universe to run, am I still special? Do You still know all of the intimate details about who I am and the things I long to do? Do You love me? Things that we Christians all “know”, but when we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t always live like they are true. The response is a simple “Trust me.” Almost too simple, but it fits with this record’s overarching theme of having one’s faith shaken and needing to re-learn the basics.
10. I Will Trust You
This song was likely written as a response to the previous one. It sounds intentionally weary and downtrodden at the outset, with its minor chords and Steven’s near-whispered vocals admitting that he’d like to just lie down and quit and never get up. This contrasts sharply with a chorus that lightly approaches the “pop” side of the equation, and it almost seems to break the mood, as if he’s forcing himself to trust despite knowing it’s really, really hard. There are days when this approach bugs me, because man, when I’m really bummed about how I misunderstood what I thought God’s plans were and it seems like life is going horribly wrong, the last thing I want to do is tack a pat answer on it and just say “I’ll try to trust You”. I don’t want to trust – I want to mope! But I think this song is Steven’s way of wrestling with exactly that. Because the point at which faith is hardest to muster is the point at which it matters most.
11. Jesus Will Meet You There
A lot of Steven’s past songs that addressed tragedy seemed to address them in the second person – when you’re suffering, I’ll be the one to lift you up in prayer and carry you through it and so forth. Most of the focus on this record has been that I am suffering, that I need someone to carry me. So it seems appropriate at this juncture that Steven seems to write from a perspective out of himself and go back to that you, even though he’s clearly referencing his own experiences, in which someone else is seeking to offer comfort. It’s tough to swallow the concept of being there when “The doctor says ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know what else to do’/And you’re looking at your family, wondering how they’ll make it through.” The song really gets at his feelings of guilt and perhaps even failure as a father over what happened to his daughter, and even though I can’t objectively see how he personally would be culpable for what was truly a horrible accident, I totally understand that as a parent, it’s pretty easy to blame yourself for everything that goes wrong with your kid. So I figure he wrote this one to give the same reassurance to himself that he’d want to offer someone else in his situation. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once.
12. Spring Is Coming
We’ve been eking out a frail existence on the far-off promise of better days for several songs now, as if surviving through a stark winter with only the most basic of elements to keep us alive. Now comes the closing song, which is smart in its ability to remain subdued while also finishing things on an “up” note, but without going over the top and running the risk of clashing with the rest of the album. Much like “Heaven Is the Face”, it’s mostly simple acoustic chords, with the strings and other instrumentation picking up gently as a feeling of new hope gradually rises up from the barren ground. Glossy production and the temptation to give it a “big finish” might have been the order of the day on SCC albums, but the restraint does wonders for the song here, perfectly capturing that moment where the scale finally tips and for the first time in a long time, one’s faith and hope begin to outweigh their despair. It’s not a big happy, party, but when that chorus of children chimes in at the end (which would be an over-the-top move in almost any other circumstance), reprising the words “Out of these ashes, beauty will rise”, it’s just enough of a hint of much greater rewards lying ahead that it makes life bearable again. Spring isn’t in full bloom yet, but Steven sees the signs of the change ahead, and there’s just enough of a feeling of release here to evoke a few tears of joy.
I know it probably seems like I’m giving the guy a free pass because hey, how could you criticize an album with this sort of a story behind it? But I don’t give out free passes. Since an album like this could have easily fallen into the trap of “commendable idea, horrible execution”, I think any compliment I’ve got to offer is one that has been earned. Beauty Will Rise isn’t perfect – I’ve mentioned a few moments where a song doesn’t really take hold in my memory or where I think he’s being a tad redundant. But there are no true duds here, no songs that I’m tempted to skip or that feel like they play embarrassingly cheesy lyrical tricks just to get the audience’s attention. Virtually none of the criticisms that I’ve made about past SCC albums come into play here. I can only hope that the lessons learned here will translate back to the poppier songs and happier lyrical themes when he records his next “normal” album. There’s no excuse for less, now that we know he can mean well and do well at the same time.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Heaven Is the Face $1.50
Beauty Will Rise $2
Just Have to Wait $1
Our God Is in Control $1
February 20th $1.50
God Is It True (Trust Me) $.50
I Will Trust You $1
Jesus Will Meet You There $1
Spring Is Coming $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.