In Brief: Takes some time to get into, but ultimately it’s one of Andrew Peterson’s best, up there with Carried Along.
I used to vouch for Andrew Peterson as if he were one of my musical soulmates or something. Just look at the first time I reviewed one of the guy’s albums, when Carried Along was released over a decade ago. I had practically made him out to be the next Rich Mullins. At the time I think my musical tastes were just starting to turn a corner and to really appreciate the “lush acoustic” side of Christian music, and Peterson came along, his down-to-earth performances all unassuming and uncomplicated, yet richly layered with the occasional bit of Celtic or bluegrass flair. There was something about his everyman approach to Christian music, since he could pen a metaphor better than a lot of the songwriters I was hearing on the subdued end of the CCM scale at the time, and even if his approach was overly precious at times, it always felt genuine, like he was just recounting an interesting anecdote that someone told him one day while the two of you were sitting down for coffee. As Peterson’s ad-hoc “band”, comprised of his wife Jamie Peterson and multi-instrumentalist Gabe Scott, effectively disbanded after the next few records, he began to take more of a “communal” approach, working with different songwriters and instrumentalists to help flesh out his vision, which led to perhaps his most accomplished album, 2004’s Behold the Lamb of God, but which also led to a bit of inconsistency in terms of focus. Was he going to go the Bebo Norman route and try more of a pop approach that might leave a few of the folk purists in the dust? 2005’s The Far Country seemed to suggest that. It was his weakest record and it was where I started to lose interest. It took two more albums for me to really come back into the fold – 2008’s Resurrection Letters, Vol. II was a good comeback reminiscent of his debut in many ways, but the slow-growing goodness of last year’s Counting Stars is what made me realize, after many months of deliberation, that I was giving Peterson the short shrift by taking a break from reviewing his albums for so long.
An initial listen to Counting Stars might not reveal a whole lot new going on at first. Peterson’s found his niche and he’s mostly comfortable with it, so you’d be forgiven for picking up that warm, “old friend” vibe as he begins to strum his acoustic guitar and tell various stories that lead to sometimes obvious metaphors about the Christian faith, and assuming there’s nothing more to it. But a closer listen reveals a willingness to experiment with the form, albeit in subtle ways – a more ambient or even rock-oriented song on occasion, a little fragment of an instrumental idea that doesn’t necessarily need to fit into a bigger picture to be beautiful, and a heavy helping of deeply personal experience woven into the narrative. The mostly mellow sound might seem to make compromises toward the dreaded “adult contemporary” at times, but then at others, the break from the expected stripped-down acoustic arrangement is welcome, adding color to songs that are both joyful and tragic. Peterson’s the kind of guy you just have to get to know more deeply before you can be surprised by him. And having Gabe Scott back on board as well as fellow musical multi-taskers Ben Shive and Andy Gullahorn to help breathe life into these songs certainly doesn’t hurt.
The lyrics on this album might also seem on the surface to cover ground familiar to a lot of folk songwriters, particularly on the subject of travel. Roads and faraway places are a recurring theme here, as is the general process of growing older and learning to trust God through different phases of life. Plenty of Christian and/or folk singers have covered such territory. What’s striking here is how some of the lessons learned and hard truths about things like marriage or parenthood or simply waiting on God through periods of apparent silence come through in honest ways. These songs feel more like conversation starters than lectures, and while they may plead for such basic things as hope and trust, they are often content to observe a situation simply for what it is and not always draw convenient bullet points to sum everything up for you. It depends on the song – there’s the occasional didactic bit that I can do without, which has always been one of Peterson’s weaknesses. But in terms of the lyrics, this may actually be his strongest set of songs to date. Doing that and demonstrating some creativity in the arrangements while still having a generally mellow sound that Christian radio doesn’t find too offensive has allowed Peterson to sneak some more meaningful, intelligent fare than what the Nashville machine is used to onto the Christian radio airwaves. Even if it ain’t my favorite kind of music, I really have to respect that.
1. Many Roads
Andy seems to have written himself the ideal setlist opener with this song – it may be in his usual mellow, unassuming vein, but it’s very meta, welcoming the audience to the show and explaining why he bothers writing songs and performing them in front of an audience in the first place. “Could it be that the many roads you took to get here/Were for me to tell this story, and for you to hear this song?” At first glance, I actually thought this was a bit presumptuous, as if to say that whatever hardships any given member of the audience went through were supposed to all make sense now that he was here singing to them, and thus I was predisposed not to like the song, but looking at it more in context, it makes sense. At worst it’s a cloying sentiment, but at best it’s an honest expression of vulnerability from a songwriter, putting his heart out there and hoping someone can relate. The subtle delivery, focusing mostly on acoustic guitar and fiddle with bits of banjo, lap steel, etc. thrown in for flavor, actually keeps both the serious sentiments and the silly ones from seeming too contrived. The self-deprecating humor here is welcome, from promising the audience to sing “my biggest hits (that don’t exist)” to explaining how he bribed his bandmates into joining him onstage with food, so basically you get the idea right up front that this is meant to be an informal affair, just like some buddies showed up to play in your living room. That’s definitely the right from of mind with which to go into an Andrew Peterson album.
2. Dancing in the Minefields
It may throw longtime fans for a loop to hear an Andrew Peterson song that’s largely based around electric guitar, drum programming, and keyboards, but despite all of these things, it’s the subtlety of the arrangement that still makes it feel like a low-key folk song. It’s an unusual arrangement for Peterson, yet it goes down easy, bringing the story of two young people who got married before they were perhaps mature enough to know what they were getting themselves into straight to the forefront. You can find any number of songs in CCM-land that affirm the virtue of marital fidelity, and even some that will admit marriage is really hard instead of just being a constant fairytale romance. But few state it as eloquently as this song, immediately letting you know that this is a very personal story. Rather than simply promising to somehow get through the hard stuff on the off-chance that it happens, he pretty much guarantees us that marriage will be a battlefield: “‘I do’ are the two most famous last words/The beginning of the end/But to lose your life for another, I’ve heard/Is a good place to begin.” What’s valued here, as this young couple learns the meaning of they commitment they made, is that wedding vows are exactly for this purpose – to keep you looking out for each other when instinctually, you’d almost rather kill each other. It’s hard to communicate this with both gravity and subtlety, but Andrew does a great job, and as a result it’s one of those songs that challenges me to step up my game as a husband. The fact that Christian radio’s latched onto this one at all would probably qualify it for Andrew’s non-existent “biggest hits” list – it’s probably one of the most landmark songs he’s written in a while, and I’m glad to see it recognized as such.
3. Planting Trees
While slow and sedate, the tricky arpeggio that characterizes this song always seems to draw me in – it’s asymmetrical, inorganic, reaching out in different directions like the branches of a tree while banjo, cello, and violin accompany it. The time signature continues to evade me (10/8, perhaps?), but I love that the song can be so unorthodox and yet fit so naturally into Peterson’s repertoire at the same time. Lyrically, it fits the mold of many of Peterson’s songs, using a very natural image as a metaphor for something more eternal and meaningful. The simple act of planting a tree, helping to reforest a barren place, is taken at face value in the first verse but used as an analogy in the second, describing a man who flew to Africa to adopt a child, and the lasting effect on generations to come that would be felt by the very different life this child had growing up. The metaphor, while obvious, is used effectively – it’s about the value of investing in something that you can’t see the immediate results from, or perhaps might not within your own lifetime, but future generations will reap the benefits. An obvious “moral of the story”, perhaps, but a well-crafted one nonetheless, set to beautiful music that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to copy anything or anyone else.
4. The Magic Hour
This lush meditation on the simple beauty of nature is the perfect choice to follow “Planting Trees”, and due to being one of a handful of Peterson songs that trades the usual dominant guitar for piano, it stands out to me much like “Invisible God” did on Resurrection Letters. Andrew actually wrote it with Waterdeep‘s Don Chaffer, which totally make sense, but I can also close my eyes and easily imagine that it was a co-write with Fernando Ortega, because the peaceful, rolling piano chords and the strings seem like the kind of classy, mellow arrangement Ortega would totally go for. There’s even a touch of horns near the end just to add to the soft sunset glow of the song, and oh my, is that Sara Groves on backing vocals? (Between this and her guest spot on Jars of Clay‘s “Love Will Find Us”, she’s been doing more beautiful work on other people’s albums than on her own lately.) The cadence of the words and the emotional, swelling mood of the song as it crests and then softly fades away capture the exhilirating feeling of having hiked to a hilltop with a pristine view, where you watch the sun sink behind the rolling hills in the distance. The song simply admires God’s creation without needing to ascribe any huge meaning or purpose to it other than simply being a wonderful sight to behold: “Here at the magic hour, bright is the mystery/Plain is the beauty before us/Could this beauty be for us?” The way Peterson’s words pass a thought from one line to the next in the chorus is sublime: “Into the peace of these wild things/Into the wild of this grace/Into the grace of this blessing/Speak in the peace of this place.” Despite more heartstring-tugging songs elsewhere on the album, this is the one that clinches the top spot for me, due to its seemingly effortless combination of detailed, observational lyrics and peaceful, elegant instrumentation.
5. World Traveler
This one seems like the first “upbeat” song on the album, and by that I mean it actually has noticeable percussion. That’s not a knock at all, given the magic Peterson and co. can pull off with just a few intertwining stringed instruments. But stuff like this is necessary to keep the album moving along at times, so the hand drums and slight hints of programming are a welcome change here. As much as I love the theme of travel and the romantic imagery it conjures up, what keeps me at a slight distance from this one is the nagging feeling that it could have been a Steven Curtis Chapman song in another life. It’s got a charming enough metaphor, starting with a young Peterson’s eagerness to escape small town life and see the world, certainly the launching point of many a folk singer’s grand adventures. But it takes too hard of a turn into what’s supposed to be its clever revelation, that meeting his wife and exploring her “uncharted territory” as the two got to know each other (and by extension, being continually fascinated by the children they have now) is what really made him a “world traveler”. It’s a destination that’s too easily arrived at, which is why I make the SCC comparison, because as much as I still enjoy a lot of Chapman’s songwriting, it can often be a bit too heavy-handed in making sure you get the moral of the story. Granted, this one isn’t obviously youth-groupy in a way that’s gonna make me sing “Saddle up your horses!” at the top of my lungs – Peterson’s not quite as obvious as all that. Still, he could have done a bit more of the work to get from premise to satisfying conclusion here.
6. Isle of Skye
There’s remarkably little to this song – just two brief verses and it’s over in a minute and a half. It’s an interlude, really – a stop along the way to some other destination. Yet this little island of a song manages to be quite beautiful in its own right, to the point where I wonder what it would have sounded like fleshed out into a full four minutes or so. Much like “The Magic Hour”, it’s got a soft but majestic piano melody that knows how to grab you with a little bit of modulation to hit the sweet spot when you’re not expecting it. Fluttering strings and glowing horns once again add subtle splashes of color, making this peaceful meditation about an island that is lovely even when the weather takes a turn for the worst into an unexpected highlight midway through the album.
7. God of My Fathers
The big, bright guitar strum that leads this one off, along with the organ, makes the song feel a lot like vintage Caedmon’s Call. That’s not a bad thing at all – CC is a band that I have great respect for and whose members have wandered in and out of the collective of artists that Andrew seems to love surrounding himself with. I’m actually surprised to not see any familiar names from that group collaborating on this particular number. You pretty much know what you’re gonna get from the title of this one – a prayerful song that leans heavily on the religious/prophetic side of CCM songwriting. As with most things, Andrew puts a little more thought into it than your average radio-friendly Christian songwriter might, taking language that might otherwise seem archaic and a bit aloof (since the reference is to God’s promise that Abraham would have more descendants than the number of stars in the sky, which by the way is where the album gets its title), and filling it in with little slices of life, descriptions of the hardships Peterson’s own ancestors must have endured on his travels and also his own journey as a parent, wondering what his own children will be like as they grow up to be elders, passing the Christian faith on to their own descendants. Sometimes I still get bogged down by the overt “religiosity” of this one, but at other times I’m impressed by Andrew’s ability to take an otherwise cliched phrase and run rampant with the exploration of what it actually means.
8. Fool with a Fancy Guitar
I sort of thought this one was being too obvious at first, with its sing-songy melody that made me think it might have been written for a children’s program or something (and no lie, the guy’s actually contributed a couple songs to a VeggieTales episode, so I know his brain can operate well in that mode – it’s just weird on an album for grown-ups). I figured we’d already heard the “Big surprise, even though I’m a singer on a stage, I’m a sinner just like you!” thing many times before, even from Peterson himself on the previous album’s “I’ve Got News”. But giving the song a fair shake, I think it actually tries to go beyond the obvious and state that in spite of all these flaws like lying and jealousy and vindictiveness and low self-esteem that we’d be shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to find out a wholesome Christian singer struggles with, “I am a priest and a prince in the Kingdom of God”. It’s a balance, I figure. Christians have to accept that their hearts are as dark as anyone else’s or else they’re missing the entire point of grace – but then if you get down on that to the point of self-flagellation, you’re forgetting that grace actually works, so it makes sense, even if the execution here is somewhat didactic. Once I get used to the waltzy, carefree rhythm of it, the song actually reminds me a bit of Caedmon’s Call’s “Table For Two”.
9. In the Night My Hope Lives On
This song takes a fairly repetitive structure and employs it to pretty good effect. The minor-key melody set against a quick guitar strum is the kind of thing I feel like I’ve heard a thousand times in folk songs, as if a story’s being told to me at a campfire, and I’m a wild-eyed kid wondering if the heroes will survive. And the melody lifts just in time for each verse to explain how hopeless individuals from various passages in the Bible were rescued by God when it didn’t seem like there was any left to be found. Simple stuff, really, but it’s how they color in the margins that makes it work. The fiddle and mandolin are delicious enough additions, but when they allow two breaks for Gabe Scott to whip out a dobro solo, it’s cause for celebration. The song gets away with its Sunday school message largely because of that – you can imagine that they’re reinterpreting some ages-old folk standard with their own instrumental savvy, rather than something the guys wrote within the last two years.
10. You Came So Close
For me, this is the most gut-wrenching song on the album. It’s also the most “produced”, wafting in on a dark grey fog of bass and programmed percussion. It’s the closest thing to pop production on the album, yet it’s too moody to pass as a pure pop song, so it exists somewhere in this weird hybrid underground – not quite pop, not quite alternative, definitely not folk, but definitely fitting. The song reaches out to a man who Andrew seems to want to pull back from the brink of suicide, or at least from giving up on something that would be life-shattering if he let it go. Even though this man feels like a bit of a prodigal son after cheating on his wife and squandering the life he once had, Andrew’s words are like an arm around a dear friend, because the guy already knows how deep he’s in it and judgment doesn’t help someone at that point – you just have to jump in and help give them a reason to fight. Both acoustic and electric instruments contribute to the wall of sound as the song builds in intensity – there’s a hammered dulcimer used in a way that for a change doesn’t remind me of Rich Mullins, and Andrew Osenga drops by to contribute a bit of electric guitar – now there’s that guest appearance from Caedmon’s Call I was asking for! (Sort of.) Some of Peterson’s metaphors might be a bit off here, but I still find this to be a relatable and highly memorable song that doesn’t pull from his typical bag of tricks. Truth be told, it was the first one on the album to really get my attention.
11. The Last Frontier
This song is subtitled “(A Lament)” in the liner notes, and that sets the stage rather well. It takes the exact opposite approach from the previous song, stripped down to pure acoustic guitar at first, the kind where you can hear the squeaks. Peterson is singing in an unusually low register, just sounding like he’s weary and he’s had it with life. The lyrics, which are already a bit of an intentional bummer, seem to hurt twice as much if one considers all of the songs where he has found God’s beauty in nature and in traveling the world, because here he pines, “Why won’t the mountains make me cry no more?” and “The highway’s like an old sad song.” It gets worse in the third verse, where he confesses “And my heart is black as coal/It’s been mined and there ain’t no gold.” Presumably this is an attempt at a modern spin on the kind of thing you might read in the book of Lamentations. Knowing Peterson, we can tell it’s not going to be a downer ending, and indeed, some light begins to shine in somewhere around the bridge as he sings of a love that still surrounds him despite how far down he feels he’s fallen, and the song ends on a prayer of “Lay me down in a field of golden.” Piano, lap steel, and both male and female backing vocals chime in subtly to help lift the mood. It’s not my favorite of Peterson’s songs, but it sets the tone that it needs to for the grand finale.
12. The Reckoning (How Long)
And what a fine finale it is – possibly the best closing track on any of Peterson’s records. Andrew Osenga, who co-wrote the song, shows up to offer a meditative electric guitar intro, the kind of thing that’s low-key and yet you know it’s heralding the arrival of something great. Sure enough, about a minute in it transitions to bright, up-tempo acoustic guitar, bringing back that Caedmon’s Call vibe again, but with a much more confident, victorious feel to it this time. Pretty much every folksy instrument Andrew’s employed in the past comes back here, as well as a full rock band arrangement – it’s not “heavy” by rock standards, but it’s definitely the most toe-tapping thing that Peterson’s put out in a great while. It’s quite well-written, too, taking a subject that many Christian singers would make all about wrath and judgment for “those other folks” and being whisked away to heaven, and instead using it to describing the cleansing and healing of the Earth brought on by a fearsome storm. As Andrew sits and watches this terrifyingly awesome display from his own from porch, he can’t help but pine “How long until this curtain is lifted?”, wanting to finally see the Lord not through metaphors like “love and thunder” (nice callback to one of his earlier albums there), but “to look You full in the face”. I’m sure the ears of the Evangelicals obsessed with the End Times will perk up at the sound of this one (and I mean that in a good way), but it’s accessible for the rest of us too, with a resounding chorus that just begs for singing along in a way that not all of Peterson’s wordier choruses can manage. It’s a glorious five minutes and change worth of inviting Heaven down to Earth, a surprisingly big production for an artist who could have quite easily ended on an understated ballad. Put this one on his nonexistent “hit list” as well.
13. The Same Song
Bonus track! It’s kind of weird to have anything tacked on after the greatness of the “official” closing track, but when you have a song like this that is interesting in its own right and yet doesn’t fit the flow of the album, I guess it’s better to get it out there somehow. This one’s simply an ode to the music that brings people together, a gentle folk song that sprinkles in the banjo quite liberally as it reminisces on the records that Peterson loved in his youth (sadly, without name-checking any of them – that would have been interesting to learn, actually) and the experience of finally meeting others who were geeky enough about their love of music to “get it”. He’s pretty much in seventh heaven, remembering those times when he and his buddies could yammer on all night about the records they played to death. I can see why this one didn’t make the cut for the “official” tracklisting – it’s too similar in its theme of music unifying people to show up too close to “Many Roads”, and later in the album, it just wouldn’t have worked thematically. I like it and think it adds some value, even if most times I’d prefer to end my listening experience with “The Reckoning”.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Many Roads $1
Dancing in the Minefields $1.50
Planting Trees $1.50
The Magic Hour $2
World Traveler $1
Isle of Skye $1
God of My Fathers $.50
Fool with a Fancy Guitar $.50
In the Night My Hope Lives On $1
You Came So Close $1.50
The Last Frontier $.50
The Reckoning (How Long) $2
The Same Song $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.