In Brief: Despite a few flaws and some songs that underperform, Falling Forward still stands out as Becker’s most mature and meaningful album.
Margaret Becker. Now there’s a blast from the past. For most of the nineties, I couldn’t seem to stop listening to her. Then after the turn of the century, it seemed like she completely fell off the radar. Not just for me personally, but for the entire Christian music industry that had once crowned her its rock queen before deciding she was better suited as a groove-heavy pop princess. I’ll admit to not having any idea what her music is like nowadays (and she hasn’t released a new album since 2007 anyway), but back when I was really into her, it seemed like she found a new identity with every album she put out, bucking some of the conventions common to Christian music at the time and then coming around to find her own way of making those conventions work a little better. Her strong, brassy vocals always seemed better suited for rock than pop – they didn’t mesh at all with any of the chirpy teen singers that became the big thing at around the turn of the century (which is probably why she went indie), and she never seemed to fit into the June Cleaver mold that a lot of female adult contemporary CCM singers did back in the day. This helped her to stand out from the crowd a bit (at least in my opinion), because she could just as easily turn out a song with a funky groove and a classy guitar solo as she could a tender, devotional ballad.
Going back and listening to the albums that first got me into Maggie B. (1993’s Soul and 1995’s Grace), I’ve realized that a lot of her earlier material hasn’t aged well. Those two records did help to invigorate her sound a bit with some R&B influence, and of course they were packed with potential CCM radio hits… but the early nineties for the rest of the world were still the late eighties for Christian music, so despite some cool ideas that producers like Charlie Peacock and Tedd T. brought to the table, she hit a bit of an identity crisis and walked away from the business for a few years. Her comeback in 1998 with Falling Forward was a relatively quiet one – this was still pop music, but it felt a little more subdued, refined, and less out-of-character. (The collaboration between Tedd T. and then up-and-comer Monroe Jones in the producer’s chair apparently gave Margaret the best of both worlds, giving the album both delicate textures and intriguing grooves.) The guitar (both acoustic and electric) once again took more of a prominent place, but the songs didn’t open up with big heavy beats or rockin’ riffs. This was an album that unfolded carefully and curiously, and it was perhaps one of the first to make me appreciate that sort of an approach to music. It was an album to drink in slowly, like a warm, flavorful cup of coffee. Looking back now that the nineties are well beyond the range of my rear view mirror, I can safely say that Falling Forward has aged incredibly well. I probably appreciate it more now than I did when I first received it on Christmas morning, 1998. (Incidentally, this was the first album I ever owned on CD. I was still buying everything on cassette up until that point, for no other reason than some sort of misplaced OCD desire for consistency.)
1. I Don’t Know How
This track is a great example of the need to throw out your expectations. It’s quiet, reflective, and exactly the kind of thing a big name CCM star in the 90s wouldn’t usually think to open an album with. The gentle fade-in and way slowed-down drum programming emphasize texture over catchiness – Margaret still croons a beautiful chorus hook, but it’s whisked away as soon as it first appears, for a verse that feels more like a page from her diary than a conventional “everything-must-rhyme” song lyric. She’s trying to fathom how people survive or manage to sleep at night without the existence of some higher power to believe in. Obviously a lot of people do, so it’s not like she’s attempting to offer empirical proof that it can’t be done. She just knows from her own experience that it’s something she can’t live without. Rather than having God show up and definitively prove His existence, she says that the little hints and reminders are more than enough comfort. That’s basically what faith is – believing when you can’t physically see. As the strings and watery electric guitar chords hit their crescendo and fade into the mist, what seemed strange at first now strikes me as the only way it would have made sense to open an album like this.
2. Cave It In
Even at its most up-tempo and beat-driven, Falling Forward isn’t in a rush to get anywhere. The highly danceable rhythm that leads this one off is catchy enough, but it never quite explodes into the big pop anthem you might be expecting – it’s just a framework upon which live drums, keyboards, and Margaret’s guitar are gradually overlaid. Back in the late 90s, it confused me a bit that she didn’t go for the throat with this one like she might have if it had appeared on Grace or Soul. But I grew to appreciate its restraint, which is entirely appropriate for a song that’s all about longing to see through the veil separating God and man. Margaret wants to be close to Jesus, walk in His shoes, bring Him a cup of water when His throat is dry. But as it is for all Christians since Jesus left the Earth, these things are experienced in more of a metaphorical sense, which is enough for Margaret to keep that candle burning, but still she wants to experience more. “So porous these walls may be,” she explains just as the bridge is building to its climax, “But I’m still clawing at the seams”. That’s where she lets loose with an electric guitar solo that isn’t loud and screaming, but that has a texture and style all its own, like a reflection of that cry for intimacy heard from the other side of a thick pane of glass. This has become one of my favorites on the album – not in spite of its refusal to play by the rules of radio-friendly pop and rock music, but because of it.
3. Clay and Water
The thematic centerpiece of the album is this lovely ballad, which is at once ornate and intimate. There are strings and programming, but instead of making the song feel overproduced, these elements somehow put it a little closer to the earth. Margaret ponders the speed at which the world is turning and life is whizzing by, but she’s calm and content with this, knowing that God is changing her at the slow but steady speed He intended. The chorus sums it up nicely: “I am clay and I am water/Falling forward in this order/While the world spins round so fast/Slowly I’m becoming who I am.” This was the first song on the album to really get my attention (and unsurprisingly, it was the first single), but while I liked it mostly for its sweet melody then, I appreciate it now for being a good example of Margaret’s skill as a songwriter, and also her ability to be powerful and yet fragile as a vocalist. You listen to this song and you can just tell it’s an extremely close one to her heart.
This is not only my favorite track on the record, but quite possibly my favorite Margaret Becker song across all the albums of hers that I’m familiar with. (Grace‘s title track and Soul‘s “I Will Be with You” and “Soul Tattoo” do come incredibly close, though.) It’s got more of an obvious guitar lead, though it’s used more to establish rhythm and melody than as a conventional “riff”. Unsurprisingly given the title, the rhythm has a bit of a “gallop” to it, which is made more obvious once the drums kick in – they sort of resemble the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Margaret describes a dream she had about horses coming for her soul, and though she woke up frightened from this dream, the song itself is not nightmarish in any way. She’s aware that they symbolize death (or possibly the apocalypse – those with specific eschatological views may take issue with this one if they interpret it that way), and it’s not so much that she’s afraid of the end… she just has so much more to do and so many ways in which she wants her soul to be prepared. “I want no regrets when the horses come for me”, she belts in the chorus. It’s a song that works on so many levels, urging you to seize the moment, and remember that your time here is finite (either because everyone dies eventually, or because of that other thing a lot of Christians liked to talk up right before the turn of the century). I’ve heard so many off-putting songs by CCM artists that attempt to warn us about the end of everything, and usually the response is one of gladness, as if they just can’t wait to be whisked away from this Earth. I tend to not like such songs because I’ve figure we’ve still got work to do here rather than checking out. So it’s noteworthy that Margaret managed to turn this subject into a song that both delighted me and challenged me during my final year of college, when the question “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” was hanging over my head. Thirteen years later, it’s still a healthy reminder to make my time spent here worth something. Also? The abrupt ending is pretty darn cool, switching to the next song at an odd moment where there’s a pause and you expect that rhythm to pick up again.
5. Deliver Me
“I was just about to tell you…” I love how those lyrics pick um immediately after the last beat of “Horses”. Unfortunately, that was the main thing about this song that really got my attention for quite a while. Maybe it was too similar to “Clay and Water” in its sound, and having those two songs so close together meant that I’d overlook one. Coming back and examining this one on its own merits now, I’ve discovered that it has a Psalm-like quality to it, elevating it above a simple prayer for salvation and making it an invitation for God to really search Margaret’s soul. She recognizes that her greatest enemies are all inside her – the temptation to fake emotions, to appear holy even when her mind and heart are elsewhere, to shrug it all off and ignore the changes that God is trying to make. No amount of running can escape these “cruelest captors”. So her prayer isn’t to be delivered from some external force, it’s “Deliver me from me/And deliver me to You.” There’s a nice touch in the bridge where she describes God’s mercy as “Soft as the new winter snow”, and then everything falls away except for these delicate, organ-like synth chords that easily bring to mind an image of snowflakes falling down around her. I still think the song could do more elsewhere to stand out, but still, it’s stronger than I remembered it.
6. Any Kind of Light
Jazzy acoustic guitar chords, lightly brushed cymbals, keyboards set to Maximum Lounge… this little bit of genre role-playing could have been an extremely corny misfire in the hands of some artists, but Margaret handles it with such finesse that I can almost picture her trying to make it as a jazz singer in some other life. She’s written a little torch song about the unique brilliance of her Savior, shining like a diamond who fascinates her with each new facet. That probably still sounds corny. I can’t really do it justice. It’s the intimacy of the song that makes it work – nothing fills more space than it needs to, so there’s plenty of room for it to breathe, and it has the sort of dusky mood that makes me feel like a small but classy nightclub somewhere on Margaret’s native Long Island could be her idea of a sanctuary. It’s got a subtle beauty to it that makes me wanna say “Take that, Norah Jones!”, but this thing was written while Norah was still finishing up college.
7. Irish Sea
I can hear Tedd T.’s influence all over this one. It’s got a slow, thick groove and an acoustic chord progression that’s been looped and reverbed for rhythmic effect. Nothing about the song sounds Irish per se, but the song could just as easily be about any far-off place a person dreams of visiting, because dreams are the main point of the song. It’s a very freeing song that finds Margaret seizing one of those moments and finding out that sometimes, God says “yes” and there’s no reason to hold back on going out and making a lifelong dream come true. Sometimes Christians do this out of a misplaced sense of reverence, as if nothing they ever wanted could be on the list of things that God wants to happen. What about the times when God simply says, “Go for it!”, because He was the one who planted that dream there in the first place? In Margaret’s case, that dream was a trip to Ireland. I remember reading an interview where she discussed this song, and I can’t remember if she actually went to Ireland before or after writing it, but I know that it resulted in her meeting up with Joanne Hogg, lead singer of Iona, which precipitated a lasting collaboration between the two on several albums of “Irish Hymns“. While those weren’t really my style, it’s kind of cool to look back and see that God had bigger plans for that trip than just a vacation and some pretty photo albums.
8. Coins and Promises
One song bleeds into the next like a gust of wind, possibly indicating that the two may be related in some way. On a very basic level, both are about believing that God wants good things for you, so I can sort of see it. But I never really bothered to dig too deep into this one, honestly. I find the rhythm of it to be too slow and ponderous, and its primary metaphor, while well-meaning, is clunky in its execution. The idea is that we can believe life is left to change, or we can believe God has a plan and a promise to work things together for our good. The things left to chance are like a coin toss, so Margaret’s view of coins and promises is “One I toss, the other I live.” I think the reason it doesn’t work for me is because there’s no metaphor for promises – if one thing’s a tangible object that we can do something with, then the other needs to be in order to make the whole analogy work. Still, my main problem with it is that it just seems to take forever to get off the ground. It floats by pleasantly enough if you have it on as background music, but when you’re really listening to it, it’s like each syllable of each word is unnaturally weighed down.
I’ve mentioned that I like other songs on this record for not taking the traditional “hammer ’em with a big hook” pop/rock approach. But here’s a place where I think a song might be so understated that more of a well-defined hook could have helped. It’s positioned as though it wants to be a rocker that picks the pace back up after “Coins and Promises”, but unlike the joyous climax that “Cave It In” slowly built up to, this one just seems to sort of bumble along and then fizzle out. From bits of lyrics sung low enough that they might as well be whispers (and some of them actually are whispers), to another distortion effect on the electric guitar that seems to take all of its edge off this time around, “Crawl” seems to continually miss the mark it’s aiming for. I know that being so weary you can barely stand, and only having faith enough to crawl before the throne of God is the whole point of the song. But if that’s the case, it probably should have been done as something intentionally more delicate, instead of promising more of an energetic release that it never quite delivers. The unfortunate placement of “Coins” and this song back-to-back is honestly the only reason I can’t quite bring myself to give the album a full 5-star rating. Missed it by that much!
10. Take Me In
The idea of being weary, but still having just enough strength left to ask God for shelter is more poetically explored in this tender song. “Any Kind of Light” is probably still the most intimate moment on the album, but this is my personal favorite of the slower songs. For most of it, Margaret is left almost to herself with the subdued tones of her electric guitar (the only other thing to intervene is some light percussion), singing a prayerful song that finds her dripping wet from the rain, all other attempts to protect herself from it proving fruitless. It’s a stark reminder of God’s sovereignty and it’s interesting to juxtapose this one with “Irish Sea” when she sings in the second verse: “I’ve been chasing dreams/And I’ve captured a few/But when I wrap them ’round my shoulders/The rain just bleeds right through.” There’s a beautiful moment after the second chorus where the song hits a sudden climax, with a bright acoustic guitar melody and a cello chiming in, shining some light into Margaret’s dark, stormy night. But rather than sweep the entire song away, it settled back down for a hushed final verse that might just be the most beautiful moment on the entire album: “So here I am/Don’t know to kneel or stand/I know there’s forgiveness somewhere/Would You help me find it, my Friend?” And just where you’d expect the pre-chorus that follows more quietly than usual to lead back into a final chorus, that whispered request, “Won’t you take me in?” actually ends up closing the song. It’s like putting a dramatic pause at the end of that prayer, not offering the expected answer, but instead leading us unexpectedly into the album’s final song.
11. I Testify
We started with an unusually low-key ballad, and now we’re going to end with a rocker. Funny how that worked out, but Falling Forward seems to delight in subverting expectations. Live drums and Margaret’s electric guitar are understandably more upfront on this one, though once again I should note that it’s more about establishing a groove than hitting you over the head with a big riff… the pace is still mid-tempo, threatening to turn a corner and become a ‘fast song”, but never quite getting there. That’s OK. It gives the song an anthemic feel, making it a sort of creed to sum up the record. After all the prayers and the dreams that came up short and the conquered fears and the slow but steady process of change, Margaret’s ready to tell the world about this dynamic relationship with her God. What could be a generic evangelical statement instead comes out as personally as anything else on the album: “I know the truth about You/And how You feel about me/I know the price that You paid/To hide the secrets I keep.” The only thing keeping this song from truly being unstoppable is the rather weak contribution of the background singers, who are given sort of a call-and-response role in the chorus – Margaret sings “I testify your love is true”, to which their strangely mushed-together voices respond, “This I know ’cause I’ve been moved”. Then Margaret again: “I testify Your love is real.” BGV’s: “This I know ’cause I’ve been…” The last word in that line is supposed to be “healed”, but it’s awkwardly cut off, as if they couldn’t find a take where everyone nailed that last note? Just a poor production decision on an otherwise good song. It’s the kind of chorus that really needs to be belted out with everything you’ve got, and Margaret does that quite well, but she’s not getting the support she needs to fully drive it home. Aside from that, this one’s a lot of fun, with hand-claps and a final guitar solo (which isn’t very edgy, but is still sort of cool in its own weird way), and an extremely abrupt ending that would have had me returning this album as a defective item if I had been unfortunate enough to purchase it on cassette. It’s the weird little production decisions like that which make Falling Forward, a decade and changes after I’ve gotten used to its tricks, still feel like a delight to come back and revisit.
Margaret’s muse (and perhaps the tepid response of Christian radio) led her to follow this album up rather quickly with What Kind of Love, her final album for Sparrow Records that squeaked in right at the tail end of 1999. That one left all pretense of rock music behind and settled in to a relaxed R&B groove, minus the overproduction that had plagued her earlier material. Songwriting-wise, it wasn’t her strongest effort, but I’m still surprised at how well it’s held up over the years. (And for what it’s worth, the title track got reimagined as “No Greater Love” for Rachel Lampa a few years later.) That’d be worth checking out if you enjoyed Falling Forward and wanted more. From there on… honestly, I don’t know. Sounds like I need to get caught up on Margaret’s independent albums from the last ten years or so. Who knows, maybe I’ll find another slow-burning favorite.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Don’t Know How $1.25
Cave It In $1.50
Clay and Water $1.75
Deliver Me $1
Any Kind of Light $1
Irish Sea $1.25
Coins and Promises $.25
Take Me In $1.75
I Testify $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.