Artist: Andrew Peterson
Album: The Burning Edge of Dawn
In Brief: While not as bold of a musical statement as Light For the Lost Boy, it’s one of Peterson’s most honest and transparent records yet, a confessional and comforting work to help you get through those “dark nights of the soul”.
It feels like Andrew Peterson and I have been in sync over the course of his last few records. Perhaps it’s because he’s skilled enough at telling stories that cut to the heart of what it means for humans to truly wrestle with their place in the universe within the framework of the Christian faith that I’ve found a lot of his work so easy to relate to. Light For the Lost Boy was especially notable in that sense, exploring themes of aging and innocence lost and then regained, against the backdrop of a full-band sound that was rare for a man who had build most of his songs against a simple acoustic guitar or piano for most of the last decade and a half that I’ve been listening to him. I noted that album as a career renaissance when I reviewed it, but I didn’t know if the world of “Christian music” as a whole would catch on, since Peterson wasn’t young and flashy nor was he a “worship leader”, at least not in the conventional sense. To my pleasant surprise, some of those tracks really seemed to resonate with a lot of folks, and that album probably brought in a lot of new fans who weren’t familiar with the wealth of earlier work in his discography. At long last, I was ready to admit that the glory days of Carried Along (still a personal favorite that I’m tempted to bring up every time I review a new record of his) weren’t necessarily destined to be the most memorable chapter of his career like I once thought they were.
If Peterson’s follow-up album, The Burning Edge of Dawn, seems like a bit of a retreat, it’s only because he’s the kind of man who can do nothing other than be honest with himself. There were some great moments of heartfelt storytelling and musical experimentation on Lost Boy, but more difficult things transpired in Peterson’s personal life that led to a season of doubt and struggle, and like any Christian singer/songwriter worth his salt, he had to address those things rather than pretending it was all OK and writing about someone else’s struggles from a distance. Burning Edge walks the fine line between folk and adult contemporary pop that Peterson cultivated on earlier records like Counting Stars, occasionally showing glimmers of his old, Rich Mullins-inspired sound, but aside from one or two songs where the arrangements are a little more elaborate, you’re probably not going to be as surprised by the sound of it as a lot of folks were with Lost Boy. The piano is still front and center on several tracks, and the acoustic guitar on a few others, and occasionally you’ll hear the dulcimer or something a little more exotic (no doubt due to the influence of Andy’s old bandmate Gabe Scott, who handles production duties and supplies several instruments here), but the focus here is really on the songwriting.
Interestingly, when I search for comparisons to an album that sounds and feels similar to this one, I keep thinking of Steven Curtis Chapman‘s Beauty Will Rise. While it doesn’t sound like Peterson had to endure a death in the family or anything so obviously tragic to the average onlooker, whatever internal turmoil he was dealing with caused him to re-examine and in some cases deconstruct some of the familiar cliches of the Christian experience, meditating on what it really means to “rejoice” when you go through troubled times or to be “pruned” of the branches that don’t bear fruit. It’s easy for CCM songwriters to reference these terms and just assume we all know what they mean; it takes a special songwriter to really examine them and take their meanings to heart in a way that is transparent to the listener. The songs examine a dark night of the soul while (for the most part) not giving into it; he’s honest about being close to admitting defeat at times, but he’s always sensitive about making sure his songs give the listener something worthwhile to chew on instead of just burdening them with his pain. Little details of Peterson’s personal life and conversations he had with friends and family do pop up in these songs, so even without knowing the full story of whatever he went through, I can hear a lot of these songs and think, “Yeah, I’ve been there”, or “Yeah, I am there.” That’s what keeps me coming back to a record like this even if the music generally doesn’t wow me the way it did on a few of Lost Boy‘s tracks or in his folksy early days.
1. The Dark Before the Dawn
I’ll admit, I had misgivings about the record starting immediately with a strong piano melody and the full band playing all at once. It reminded me of The Far Country – easily my least favorite of Peterson’s albums because it’s a little too pop and not enough folk, though to be fair, that record has a strong title track to open it. I feel that this one’s pretty good as well, even if I wish he hadn’t pitched it as such an obvious CCM radio single. it just has that congenial sort of feel to it – lots of interesting instruments like the dulcimer and the electric guitar, but it’s all so immaculately organized that hardly any of it really stands out. I’d be more open to this sort of thing as the grand conclusion to an album-long struggle, or even as more of a laid-back single midway through, but starting with it throws me off a bit. I get that it’s the thesis statement of the record, and quite a well-written one at that, with Andrew being honest about not being able to see beyond the dark night he’s in the middle of and yet taking it on faith that it must someday give way to the blazing light of a new day. He has a knack for explaining these things more convincingly than a lot of singers in the genre, because you get the sense that he’s experienced it firsthand – change the first-person perspective to second person here and it could easily come off as condescending. Because the prayer comes from an “I” perspective, it’s much more authentic. This one’ll probably go down as another of Peterson’s classics, even if I wish he’d been more musically adventurous with it.
2. Every Star Is a Burning Flame
A little bit of astronomy gives Peterson a flash of inspiration here, as he ponders the night sky and remembers that each of those stars is a distant sun, its light reaching the Earth after a journey of many years. Gabe and Andy pulls a subtle but neat trick here, taking what we assume is going to be a calm piano ballad and giving it breezy, upbeat, slightly metallic percussion and more of a textured, nuanced approach than the preceding track. It’s still adult contemporary pop, but the details stand out to me more here – the fluid piano melody backed by the electric guitar, the reverb effect that gives the backing vocal a feeling of wide open space, etc. The music does a decent job of matching the sense of awe and wonder that the song is trying to describe.
3. We Will Survive
Aha, there’s that dulcimer again! This time it’s front and center – and I kind of feel like it should be, if you’re gonna go to the effort to bring such an instrument into the studio. I get some pretty strong flashbacks to Peterson’s early days here, especially when the dulcimer and piano are met with the steady strum of an acoustic guitar, but I’m reminded that this could never have been the sound Peterson stuck with permanently, because he had it on loan from Rich Mullins to begin with. I don’t mind him pulling it out occasionally for old time’s sake, and a song that mentions his wife Jamie by name (as he did in “Nothing to Say”, quite possibly his signature song) and looks to their marriage to be a source of courage and inspiration in hard times definitely seems like the perfect occasion for such a jubilant sound. This song makes subtle reference to “Dancing in the Minefields”, a song about the hard work of keeping a marriage alive that may well have taken its place in the canon of Peterson classics alongside “Nothing to Say”, which might also be referenced here – he’s calling on the memories of good times and hard times alike to remind himself of how far they’ve come and how much they’re capable of enduring together.The title I decided on for this review – “It’s only when the straight line breaks and heals a little crooked that you ever see the grace” – comes from this song, and I think it’s an apt description of how the hurt and brokenness two people who have been together that long will undoubtedly experience at times get woven into their story in ways that wouldn’t be as profound if everything had been all happy, all the time.
4. My One Safe Place
The love-fest for Mrs. Jamie Peterson continues here, on a more confessional song that admits she’s had to bear her fair share of burdens as Andrew’s gone through some of his darker days. Set to a lightly bouncy rhythm and sung with a sense of almost childlike admiration, Andrew’s lyrics play out much like a devotional, explaining how much of an example of God’s grace his wife has been to him over and over again. At times it borders on being a little too sappy for its own good, but Andrew’s descriptive language (along with a clever nod to the theme of his previous record) sells it once again: “You are a fortress/I am under siege/You’re a light in the forest/I am a lost boy out in the trees/So I run away home/Yes, I run away home to you.”
5. The Rain Keeps Falling
For me, this song is the emotional crux of the record. It was definitely written during one of Andrew’s darkest moments, which isn’t to say that the song is depressing, but he’s definitely admitting that his faith has reached a weak point here, and unlike the confident belief that night will end that he articulated in the opening track, here he’s admitting that he can’t see an end in sight, and the bad stuff just keeps happening and he’s trying to make some sense of what purpose this could all serve in God’s grand plan and he’s coming up with zip. “I’m so tired of this game, of these songs, of the rote/I’m already ashamed of the line I just wrote”, he admits in the album’s most vulnerable moment. I’d imagine this sort of “still in process” songwriting, where the story doesn’t come to a happy conclusion by the end of a five-minute song, will be uncomfortable to listeners who expect Christian music to bring only words of consolation and encouragement. To me, it’s incredibly comforting to know I’m not the only one, because in late 2015 and early 2016 when I was first listening to this song, I felt like I was in one of those seasons. The gentle, rolling piano and the sympathetic cello makes it feel a lot like something off of Fernando Ortega‘s Storm album, which mined similar themes at a time many years ago when I also needed to hear something like that. There’s also the beautiful backing vocals provided by Ellie Holcomb, simply repeating “Peace, be still” at a time when Andrew desperately needs that peace the most, and it’s a simple counterpoint to his desperate prayer for just a shred of hope to hold on to. (I get the good kind of chills as I realize how much this interplay reminds me of the classic Jars of Clay song “Worlds Apart”.) Peterson’s own daughter Skye also sings with him here, appropriately enough in a verse where he mentions planning a seed with her, and waiting “for a sign that this death will give way to a birth”, which puts a different spin on the rain that keeps falling, making it a necessary part of a long, slow maturation process. This song is heartbreaking but it’s gorgeous, and I think there’s some real wisdom here, even though at first it might sound like the result of a lot of doubt and frustration on the songwriter’s part.
I’ve said before that simple songs of praise carry a lot more weight when they’re placed strategically after songs that give weight to the fear or danger or tragedy that the singer is praising God for being rescued from. That applies here, though to call this song “simple” just because of the repeated mantra in its chorus or the direct quotation of Scripture in some of its lyrics would be unfair to Peterson’s efforts to emphasize in his own words what it even means to rejoice, or for God to rejoice over us, in the midst of those dark times and not only after being able to look back on them with clear hindsight. Nor would it be fair to the surprising direction that this one takes musically. This could have become a rote praise chorus with no real surprises – I could picture a Steven Curtis Chapman or a Chris Tomlin type penning a smart lyric like this and then taking the easy way out musically for the sake of a congregation easily picking up the tune. Andrew Peterson and Gabe Scott’s approach leans more cinematic, perhaps even liturgical, bringing back the dulcimer and the electric guitar for a rousing musical flight that comes to an exciting crescendo. Even without the dulcimer, I could easily spot the Rich Mullins influence here, and I love that.
7. I Want to Say I’m Sorry
The next two songs deal more with interpersonal relationships, and at first I thought this deviated from the theme of the album a bit, but I’ve realized that this straightforward and heartfelt apology song ties into the theme quite well, because he’s alluded in a few of the previous songs to how his season of doubt and despair took its toll on his wife and children. At times I see this song as an apology to them, but there’s also some stubbornness he’s admitting to here that makes me wonder if it’s about some other strained relationship with someone he felt had wronged him, and who he reacted ungracefully to as a result. Mending fences is more important to him here than doing the post-mortem and figuring out who’s to blame for what. I really do appreciate the sentiment, as well as the return to more of an acoustic-based sound. (There’s even a bit of slide guitar, yay!) But this one does start to feel a bit more “produced” than it needs to once the drums and keys come in. I feel like taking a starker approach and leaving the acoustic and slide guitar alone might have suited the mood a little better here.
8. Be Kind to Yourself
I’m not gonna lie – this one’s a bit corny. I suppose that’s just the nature of things when a songwriter addresses a song directly to one of his children. I wouldn’t say this is strictly kids song/Sunday school material, but it has that sort of “daddy’s gonna teach you a little something vibe” that reminds me of the great many songs Steven Curtis Chapman has written in this vein, with a side of Chris Rice for good measure. (I suppose it’s fair game, since Rice apparently dropped off the face of the planet nearly a decade ago.) Daughter Skye, who once again sings background, appears to be the subject of this song, dealing with some sort of anger issues that she’s internalized against herself, and in the daddiest of dad ways, Andrew tells her to have some grace with herself because “You gotta learn to love your enemies, too.” There’s probably a bit of this lesson that Andrew himself had to learn, because it’s typical to do a fair amount of beating yourself up when you go through a depression, so I can vaguely tie it to the album’s theme, but it’s a bit of a stretch. He means well, there’s a good lesson in it and all, but it’s kind of didactic in that sort of way where fellow parents will smile and think it’s cute, but it’s probably not the musical language most teenage daughters are gonna speak.
9. The Power of a Great Affection
I’ll admit at this point that I find it baffling how many of these songs are piano-based when Peterson (who, to be fair, knows how to play the instrument, but isn’t the one actually playing it on most of these tracks) is pictured with an acoustic guitar on the album cover. It’s mildly misleading, but the songs are generally good enough that I didn’t really notice this at first. This is more of a slow-burning ballad with a pretty enough melody, so I don’t mind it here. I could swear I’ve read that quote “seized by the power of a great affection” before – Google tells me it’s from Brennan Manning, so I don’t know why my brain thought it was C. S. Lewis, but either way it’s a good inspiration for a song, and Peterson is pretty good at unpacking that statement and digging into what it really means to be pursued by God before you’re really even old enough to be aware of the desire to pursue God. The sentiment “even when the shadows are long, I will sing about the Son that’s risen” dovetails nicely with the themes found in “Rejoice” and “The Dark Before the Dawn” – learning to have an attitude of awe and reverence for God even in the times when God seems most distant.
10. The Sower’s Song
Andrew’s wise to not attempt another epic ten-minute closing track this time around. I’m still surprised at how well he pulled that off with “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone”, and that it even became enough of a fan favorite to make his best-of project (albeit in a heavily edited form). But this track might actually cover more ground, musically speaking, in just under five minutes. I love the bright piano melody (which might stand out even more if the piano hadn’t been so heavily used throughout this album, but that’s a minor nitpick) and his analogy about being like a field lying fallow, awaiting another season in which he can bear fruit and be prosperous, but knowing that this is part of the healing process. I love the vivid colors in his lyrics as he sings: “So I kneel at the bridge edge of the garden/At the golden edge of dawn/At the glowing edge of spring/When the winter’s edge is gone/And I can see the color green/I can hear the sower’s song.” The rhythm and tone of the song shift to something a bit slower midway through, and this is where the percussion and some of Gabe’s other production touches really get to shine as the song gradually builds to a breathtaking climax, then bringing back the initial piano melody for a nice little flourish at the end. It’s this sort of attention to detail in the arrangements that sets a lot of Peterson’s better work apart from his peers on the “folksy” side of contemporary Christian pop music, who are often also lyrically gifted but tend to keep things a bit too simple on a musical level for my tastes. He’s been turning out solid finales for several albums now, and in this particular case, the feeling of hope that this song ends with makes the struggle felt in several of the previous songs feel like it had a purpose.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Dark Before the Dawn $1
Every Star Is a Burning Flame $1.25
We Will Survive $1.50
My One Safe Place $1.25
The Rain Keeps Falling $2
I Want to Say I’m Sorry $.75
Be Kind to Yourself $.50
The Power of a Great Affection $1
The Sower’s Song $1.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: