In Brief: I’m too partial to Peterson’s early efforts to call this his best, but this may be his most fully realized album. It’s a commendable artistic rebirth for a veteran songwriter.
Forget what you know about Andrew Peterson.
Wait, no – that sounds like bad PR copy. Forget I wrote that. You probably don’t know anything about Andrew Peterson in the first place, unless you’re part of a very small subset of readers who are into Christian music and who have the motivation to seek out singer/songwriters on the mellower end of that spectrum who seek to add something intelligent to an otherwise stale genre. Peterson started out as a refreshingly simple folk singer, telling inspirational and occasionally humorous stories that related back to his faith in some way, but as time went by and he scored the occasional modest Christian radio hit or Dove Award nod, the results of his records became more and more varied, drifting into intriguing genre experiments from time to time, but more often flirting with middle-of-the-road pop and rock in ways that I found uncomfortable and uninspiring. Over the years, he’s become a singer who I respected more than I loved listening to, and sometimes it would feel like a bit of a chore to mine a new albums of his for the handful or memorable tracks that it would provide. That started to change for the better on his 2010 release, Counting Stars, easily his most solid effort in over half a decade. But still, that one was a slow grower, and I wondered if Peterson would ever find a way to blend his mellow, Christian coffeehouse vibe with his more grandiose aspirations in a way that didn’t feel like a mere compilation when one track led to the next on a typical album of his.
Well, apparently the next step in Peterson’s evolution was to ditch the mellow folk troubador persona almost completely, put together a band, and put out the most beautifully textured and strikingly consistent record of his career. Late in 2012, Light For the Lost Boy slipped in under the CCM industry’s radar, as most of his albums seem to, and it marked a definite change in direction for anyone who expected an album of his to be largely populated with gentle 12-string guitar chords, Andrew’s slightly nasal vocals, and little else. Here, frequent collaborators Andrew Osenga, Ben Shive, and Andy Gullahorn help Peterson to create a web of sound that is as versatile as it is unified, ranging from experimental textures, to full-on electric guitar-driven rock, to easygoing pop, to sensitive ballads, all without anything feeling out of place or any of the usual “so-so” tracks dragging down the record. I might still be partial to the glistening, folksy goodness of his turn-of-the-century debut, Carried Along on a musical level, and the Christmas story told in the form of a play on Behold the Lamb of God on a lyrical level, but this is probably the first album of his where I honestly feel that the lyrics and music are top-notch for pretty much the entire duration. I wouldn’t say that either are absolutely perfect – there are still a few tracks past the amazing opening foursome that are admirable but not quite stellar – but this is the first time in a good while where I’ve been able to spend a full 45-50 minutes with Peterson without my attention wandering.
What helps this album to connect with me as a whole, rather than just being notable for a few well-written songs, is that Peterson has matured as a storyteller in the intervening years. He’s even made a foray into the realm of children’s literature, and while I can’t speak to the quality level of a book I haven’t read, I do tend to think that the attention to detail one needs to write an engaging book is also a useful skill for a songwriter to have. An overarching theme of innocence and the loss of it can be heard throughout Light For the Lost Boy, as the album frequently laments the hardship we all face as we come to grips with such grown-up worries as aging and death and our prayers not always coming true. Lots of songwriters explore these themes as they get older, but Peterson’s take on it is both more personal and more reassuring than the usual, since he’s grappling with the idea of spiritual renewal taking precedence over physical decay. His ability to empathize with the titular “lost boy” – presumably a fictional character related in some way to a story he’s written – dovetails nicely with his own concerns as a middle-aged father and husband, someone who has gone through transitions he can’t undo and who can’t live life the same way he did in the idealized days of his own childhood or even his 20’s. I relate pretty strongly to these themes, given some of my own struggles to let the past be the past and to be open to new experiences and responsibilities that sort of scare me. I think a lot of folks my age would. That’s not to say that a college student or a senior citizen wouldn’t appreciate it, but this definitely isn’t a record that aims at a wide demographic.
Musically, I feel like many of the songs on Counting Stars that I felt took Peterson in the right direction are reflected in some fashion here. Those who are familiar with Peterson’s past work and who loved the grey, moody tension of “You Came So Close”, the tranquil, piano-driven beauty of “The Magic Hour”, and the big folk/rock finale of “The Reckoning” will probably find a lot to love here. If you’re still wishing for another “Nothing to Say” or heck, even a “Dancing in the Minefields”, then this new full-band approach might not do it for you. Now I’m not saying that I hope Peterson has abandoned his easygoing acoustic side for good – it’ll probably make a comeback to some degree on his next record. I’m just excited to hear him step out of that comfort zone in order to let the style of each song server the mood and/or message that it attempts to convey. Once an artist has figured out how to do that, it’s like they’ve turned a corner and they can never completely go back to the status quo. And changes that can’t be undone seem to be what Light For the Lost Boy is all about.
1. Come Back Soon
You’ll definitely notice that something weird is going on from the first seconds of this album, with soft electronic beats and vaguely synthetic background ambiance all swirling about, with little bits of acoustic guitar mixed, and a sparse but well-defined piano melody serving as the de facto lead instrument. This isn’t an attempt to redefine Peterson as an electronic artist by any means, since I can still see this one working with just a guitar or piano, but it definitely gains something from Peterson and the gang’s willingness to use the studio as a secret weapon. The song recalls a horrible flood that swept through Nashville and the horror of one of his children at witnessing the destruction that it wrought, as well as the death of an animal preyed upon by a stronger one in the midst of the wreckage. Pretty heavy stuff for this particular songwriter, but in keeping with his usual habits, he turns this innocent, childlike expectation that the dead animal might “Come back soon” into an analogy for our very adult fears about the finality of death. The song groans with uneasiness, the drums thrashing about and the electric guitars offering a few moody chords here and there, and it’s really quite surprising how the inensity of this one ramps up when you’re not quite expecting us, resulting in an impassioned plea: “We wake in the night in the womb of the world/We beat our fists on the door/We cannot breathe in this sea that swirls/So we groan in this great darkness/For deliverance/Deliverance, O Lord!” This is probably the finest example of Peterson’s willingness to explore new sounds on this album, and it’s a song I’d easily recommend to anyone who had written him off in the past as just another guy with a guitar and a few Bible stories.
2. The Cornerstone
It would be fair to call this song a Bible story, or at least a summation of several of them, though it’s really more about Peterson continuing to grapple with those timeless truths as he grows older. The rock-oriented nature of the song – by far the edgiest thing he’s ever recorded, though it might still seem tame by modern rock standards – once again allows us to feel that tension between his awe and his frustration, as he tries to grapple with aspects of God that will always be a mystery to him. Acoustic guitar and piano do help to add atmosphere to this one, though it’s really the chugging electric guitar chords and the fiery licks that occasionally come from said instrument that make it stand out. Peterson’s warm, comforting voice might seem like an odd fit for this sort of thing, though he’s done an admirable job of stretching his range here, pairing his voice with a lower-range backing vocal (which may or may not be Andrew Osenga’s) during the verse, and using the same sort of punctuated cries that worked so well in “Come Back Soon” as the chorus comes to a fever pitch. Some of Peterson’s finest lyrics are on display here, for example this intriguing couplet: “You’ve been a mystery since the moment that I met you/You never move, but I can never seem to catch you.”
3. Rest Easy
This shouldn’t be a big surprise given the title, but this one’s a rather easygoing pop song. “Easygoing” doesn’t need to mean lacking in the instrumental department – there’s a strong, melodic piano riff driving this one, and though it has more of a relaxed pace, it feels like there are so many colorful layers of acoustic and electric instruments, as well as backing vocals, that I notice a little something different every time I listen to it. The backbone of the song is a bright, encouraging melody that tries go beyond the “God just wants you to be happy”-type cliches that dominate Christian radio and that can sometimes be troubling due to such things generally not being all that theologically accurate. But here, Peterson’s reassurance comes from a more grounded place, because he’s grappled with the emotional and intellectual struggles of the last two songs, and wants to be sure none of these struggles lead us to misunderstand God and believe that He doesn’t love us or that we need to run ourselves ragged to earn His love. The message here is not that Christians never need to work or wrestle with things that are difficult – it’s just that if you’re working out of some sense of obligation to make God love you more, you can quit while you’re ahead, because you’re missing the point of why God loves us completely. I won’t say that this one’s flawless as pop songs go – the verse seems a bit sparse, leading a bit too quickly into the chorus before it really has time to set up the question that the chorus seeks to answer. But it’s a minor complaint – this one deserves to be lighting up Christian radio and throwing down the gauntlet to other artists offering reassuring truths or catchy melodies but not quite figuring out effective, creative ways to bridge the two.
4. The Voice of Jesus
Since this soft piano ballad plays like a bit of a lullaby to Peterson’s young daughter, I guess I could forgive you for writing it off as sentimental glurge. (Especially since a little girl’s voice can be heard here and there singing softly in the background.) It’s only because Peterson is so good at translating childlike wonder into the reference frame of our complicated adult lives that this one works so well for me. His explanation to this child that the restlessness we feel, the hurt that our hearts tune into over realizing things are not right in this world, is actually a way that Jesus speaks to us and invites us to know Him better, is stated so eloquently that I can honestly say I find myself inspired by it as a cynical adult who hasn’t become a parent yet and who should theoretically be immune to this sort of thing. The fact that it’s gorgeously restrained, relying merely on a piano, strings, and some very light background ambiance is a big part of the equation – I’m as captivated here as I was during the similarly gorgeous “The Magic Hour”, and I think it makes a strong enough statement that Peterson could have ended the album with this one if he hadn’t already come up with grander aspirations for a finale.
5. The Ballad of Jody Baxter
The flowing acoustic melody and the more wordy, storytelling nature of this song makes it one of the few links to Peterson’s previous style that you’ll hear on this album, though it still takes on a few reflective layers due to the piano and backing vocals and very light percussion, and even a little bit of hammered dulcimer that comes in later – there’s still a band behind him, painting around the edges of the song as delicately as they can to give it a little bit of mysterious flavor. The album’s theme hinges on this song, so it’s an important one to pay attention to, telling a tale of a little boy lost out in the woods trying to find a young deer that he had grown attached to, which Peterson works into an obvious but compelling metaphor for the loss of childhood innocence and the fleeting notion that we might someday be able to return to it. it’s a tricky thing, to be honest about that fantasy that I’m sure many of us grown-ups have from time to time, without completely indulging it or making false promises about it.
6. Day By Day
The second half of the album picks up with a strong beat and a bit of a folk/rock vibe – it’s slightly more up-tempo than “Rest Easy”, and the electric guitar and piano are prominent, but it’s definitely not as aggressive as “The Cornerstone”. While I do occasionally get the melody of this one stuck in my head, it’s not as distinctive musically as some of the others, so I tend to focus more on the lyrics. Peterson starts with an anecdote about a trip to Kensington with his wife, where they heard children playing in a place he refers to as “Neverland” (no, not Michael Jackson‘s ranch) and laments not being let in, due to not having any of their children with them. “You must be this tall to ride this ride” cuts the other way when you’re an adult – sucks, doesn’t it? This gives way to more general observations about how time seems to pass more quickly the older you get – “And everybody’s so surprised/When right before your very eyes/Your baby’s in the second grade/You blink and it’s her wedding day/And we just can’t get used to being here/Where the ticking clock is loud and clear/Children of eternity/On the run from entropy.” I’ve heard so many artists mine this theme, so even though it’s one that I tend to latch on to easily, not just any CCM artist can win me over by getting wistful for the days of youth any more. Peterson has a winner on his hands here because he’s looking one step beyond that longing, reminding us just as he has to continually remind himself that it’s all just a temporary setback: “So don’t lose heart/Though your body’s wasting away/Your soul is not/It’s being remade.”
7. Shine Your Light on Me
I absolutely love Peterson’s guitar picking on this song – it’s so fluid and so full, and yet so spacious at the same time, giving you a glimpse into the quiet, dark nights he describes when he hit some of his lowest lows. “The Last Frontier” mined this sort of lyrical territory on Counting Stars, and that song was noticeable for facing up to the issue of depression in such a stark fashion, but here the mood is more calming and comforting, focusing on the people who were there to lift him up when he was too down on himself to even speak or sing – the image of a group of fans singing a song of his at a concert when he could barely muster up the energy to drag himself out on stage is notable for its transparency. Of course, a million songs about God’s light piercing someone’s dark night of the soul have been written, so this one wouldn’t necessarily be anything special if not for the striking bridge, when it feels like a million shafts of light come flooding in via the various acoustic instruments that are suddenly cascading all over the place. It’s a beautiful instrumental flourish that helps the song to truly mean what it says.
8. Carry the Fire
Here, the moody textures of “Come Back Soon” return in more of an organized fashion, taking on more of a confident, anthemic pace as the piano rings out with a confident melody rather than an uncertain one, as the percussion marches along with similar determination. It’s the most emotionally uplifting moment on the album so far – which is not to say that it’s been a depressing ride up to this point, since Peterson’s overall personality is far too welcoming for him to ever be too much of a downer – but you’ll find yourself compelled to chant along with the chorus as he declares, “I will, I will carry the fire/I will, I will carry the fire for you”. Peterson isn’t usually one to craft obvious “sing-along” choruses, and he wisely keeps this one restrained rather than loading it down with tons of voices. That’s probably a wise move, as it gives the song a subtle grace that it might not otherwise have had. The infectious chorus will likely spread to others as he performs it in concert, but hearing it on the album, you need to believe that this one man is singing it to one other person, and that the fire catches slowly, believably, in a personal way as one person offers prayers or kind words or a shoulder to cry on for another who can’t quite muster enough faith for themselves during a time of struggle and soul-searching.
9. You’ll Find Your Way
It might just be the fact that there are a number of mid-tempo, piano-based songs on this album, but I’ve never quite connected with this one the way that I have with the rest of the album. I can’t say anything bad about how it’s written – here Peterson seems to be offering words of encouragement to one of his boys as he grows older, and the language has to be different from the more flowery and sentimental phrasing of “The Voice of Jesus” because well, boys usually respond different things than the girls do. I’m not sure that I’m as personally compelled by an admonishment to “Keep to the old roads, and you’ll find your way”, as I have been by some of the other encouragements and observations on this album, but really I think it’s the more middle-of-the-road arrangement that keeps me at a slight distance from this one. While there are strings and pounding drums and other soft background elements that grow stronger as the song hits a crescendo, the way it arrives there doesn’t seem as innovative as the routes taken by several of the other songs. This is still a cut above the middling songs that plagued the back half of weaker albums like The Far Country, and if it had been heard on an earlier album, it may well have been a standout, even a worthy finale. But Peterson’s got bigger fish to fry, so this one just feels like a transitional piece along the way to a stronger ending.
10. Don’t You Want to Thank Someone
The first thing you’re likely to notice about this album’s closing anthem is its sheer length – it’s ten minutes long. What could Andrew Peterson, a man not normally known for giving his songs an intentionally epic scope, possibly do to occupy that much time without getting painfully repetitive? What’s surprising is that, even though this song builds very gradually at a calm, even-tempo much like “Carry the Fire” did, it doesn’t ever seem tedious or forced when the band gives it ample room to breathe and never rushes from one segment to the next unnaturally. This could have easily worked as a five-minute song – there’s nothing progressive or unorthodox about the structure of it. Peterson simply had more lyrical observations to make here than during his usual three to four-minute song, so he simply resisted the urge to edit it down. Like many of his classic songs, the lyrics are rife with scenic observations as he ponders the beauty of nature, and also emotionally compelling references to relationships that have been healed, burdens that have been lifted, sources of heartache and confusion that have begun to make more sense with the passage of time. As he’s hinted throughout the album, it’s only natural for our hearts to respond to these situations with gratitude, and there must be someone to whom that gratitude can be directed. To us Christians, that’s a sign of God working even before we humans are at a point to fully accept or understand who’s behind it all. Even though there aren’t any surprising instrumental flourishes in this mostly even-tempered song, nor is there a massive crescendo that moves me to the verge of tears, this final chapter is a moving summation of the ideas that the songwriter has wrestled with throughout the album, even making nods to past songs that marvel at God’s glory with its soft cries of “Hallelujah” and asking God “How long” until His glory is fully revealed. A soft female voice softly singing “Come back soon” can be heard as it winds down, and I appreciate that thought as a subtle bookend – bringing the story full circle without beating us over the head by trying too hard to be clever about it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Come Back Soon $2
The Cornerstone $1.75
Rest Easy $1.25
The Voice of Jesus $1.75
The Ballad of Jody Baxter $.75
Day By Day $1.25
Shine Your Light on Me $1.50
Carry the Fire $1
You’ll Find Your Way $.50
Don’t You Want to Thank Someone $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.