Artist: The Gray Havens
Album: Ghost of a King
In Brief: Some subtle (for the most part) electronic touches and more of a focus on keyboard and layered arrangements add a fair amount of drama to the duo’s very warm, relateable style of storytelling. At times they can overplay their hand and come across a bit cheesy, and I still wish they were a true vocal duo rather than just a guy with his wife on backing vocals, but this is still an improvement on the folk-pop sound they established on Fire & Stone.
There’s something that I’ve always found alluring about a married couple making music together. When I was young, naive and had an overly romantic view of the world, and I was just getting my first taste of pop music via some of the Christian bands that were popular in the 90s, I was convinced that I wanted to grow up to be like Out of the Grey. While I didn’t end up marrying a musician, and I also realized I’m way better at analyzing music than I am at making it, my admiration for creative couples has lived on in the form of bands like Over the Rhine, Arcade Fire, and Gungor, to name a few. While the Illinois-based Christian indie pop duo The Gray Havens, comprised of former American idol contestant Dave Radford and his wife Licia Radford, doesn’t quite have the same domestic synergy as some of those other bands due to one of them dominating the songwriting and lead vocals, I still get those same warm fuzzies when listening to the music they make together. The name’s a bit of a funny coincidence considering my Out of the Grey fandom (and why people can’t be consistent about the spelling of gray/grey is beyond me), but in terms of their overall sound and influences, I’d put them closer to Andrew Peterson (whose frequent producer and songwriter partner Ben Shive produced their latest record) and maybe a little bit of Gungor. It’s “pop”, but it makes a strong attempt to put the creativity and storytelling first, meaning that their albums are less susceptible to having filler tracks just for the sake of Christian radio. It’s definitely made with a Christian audience in mind, for the most part, due to their ability to frame well-known concepts of the faith in their own words and make them feel like some sort of an epic story you’re seeing with new eyes. And at times it can fall back on cliches and corny sentiments. But when they really knock a song out of the park, it’s powerful in its own unique way. A lot of their songs seem tailor made for a joyous, sunny Easter afternoon, or a languid summer evening spent curled up with a favorite storybook.
The duo’s second full-length album, Ghost of a King, has a few of those heavy-hitters early on in the record, largely due to some chances they took in the production department, allowing bits of electronic instrumentation and some clever sonic layering to add dramatic weight where it’s needed, while never taking the focus off of the humble beginnings most of these songs had when they were just two people picking out a melody on an acoustic guitar or piano. Most of the album explores this new direction, while a few of the guitar-based songs feel like they could have easily fit into the folksier Fire & Stone, which only just came out last year. The Gray Havens didn’t intend at first to put out another album so soon – they were working on an EP and it just sort of grew beyond its initial parameters to become the short-but-sweet ten-track album that came out this spring. A few years in the past, I might have complained about two of its tracks feeling like “half songs” and thus the album not really having as much content overall as I’d prefer, but the other eight songs are consistent enough that I generally don’t mind this. It’s a collection of tracks that I find myself returning to a lot more frequently than Fire & Stone, on which they had made some admirable artistic choices, but the songs could start to feel a bit overwrought after a while. Ironically, by scaling up the production values while scaling down the complexity of the song structures, they seem to have hit on a vibe that works really well for them. Since I don’t listen to a lot of straight-up CCM these days and hardly anything you could consider “worship music” in the traditional sense, it’s nice to stumble across an artist who produces spiritually rich, thought-provoking songs well-suited to late-night reflection, prayer, journaling, that sort of thing. At times I’m tempted to think it’s a shame that most Christian radio stations will likely never risk the airtime on a Kickstarter-funded effort such as this so long as the big labels have a strangehold on their playlists. But then I realize it’s nice to hear artful evangelism that will hopefully continue to exist un-meddled with by label bosses. I wouldn’t be so hard on Christian music if more of it were like this.
1. Ghost in the Valley
While the lead track is really just an intro, normally the kind of thing I’d downgrade an album for when it was already relatively short on content, I must say that this brief piano piece manages to foreshadow a few of the other compositions in a way that makes it feel like a satisfying, perhaps even essential, way to start things off. It starts as a solo piano piece, and midway through, the mood changes as some reverb is added and you begin to hear “watery” background effects applied to the piano and vocals. The image of a man drinking deep from a river and seeing a beautiful valley come into view sets the stage nicely for the more expansive songs to come.
2. Shadows of the Dawn
While a fingerpicked guitar leads us into this upbeat tune, it unfolds in a different, more dramatic way than a lot of the tracks on their folksier first record. The up-tempo track starts off lightly, but it’s soon brimming over with excitement as Dave sings of a heavenly kingdom that seems as different from our world as night and day, obscured by a proverbial layer of fog, and yet so close we can almost reach out and touch it. “I’ll take these foolishness roads of grace and run toward the dawn”, he sings exuberantly as the guitar and drums grow into a very confident, marching sort of rhythm during the chorus. The meaning of the song is quite transparent on the surface, yet there’s a layer of mystery in how it’s produced, with some of the vocal and instrumental elements softly echoing in the background, as if viewed from underneath the rippled surface of a lake.
3. Ghost of a King
The title track is, hands down, the duo’s finest work thus far. I get the good kind of chills whenever I hear the opening guitar arpeggio, the beautiful little piano melody that intertwines with it, and the very unlikely yet so satisfying drum programming that drops in at the second verse, giving the song a real sense of weight and urgency. Dave’s delivery on the verse here is different from his usual – it’s syncopated in a way that suggests he was listening to something with more of an urban vibe when he wrote it, and yet this doesn’t come across as an ill-advised attempt to be streetwise. It’s a merging of genres that somehow flows beautifully (rather than being deliberately jarring like some of Crowder‘s more recent stuff). The more open, soaring chorus finds Dave and Licia in perfect harmony, and once again there’s this dreamy, mysterious aura to it, as they sing of a “Road to Damascus” sort of experience where an traveler is caught off guard by a supernatural encounter with a ghost who invites him to a land “Where no chariot can take you, where the river meets the sand.” It’s here that I realize the use of “Ghost” in two track titles was no coincidence, as the opening track was meant to call forward to this one. The three tracks together are a stunning little suite in their own right, right down to the eerily beautiful reprise of the piano melody that closes it out. Unfortunately nothing on the rest of the album is quite this brilliant, but I figure the duo realized they had a standout track on their hands here, so they placed it early in the tracklisting and gave it the honor of bearing the album’s title. It was a good call.
4. Band of Gold
The next two songs are probably the closest thing to the indie folk/rock sound that characterized most of Fire & Stone. They could have pretty easily fit into that album. This one, while still fairly upbeat, is more of an intimate acoustic track, in which the duo allow themselves the indulgence of getting a little lovey-dovey, proclaiming the promise that they made to each other by putting a “band of gold” on each other’s fingers and declaring things like, “I’m never getting over you”. It’s perhaps a bit too cutesy for its own good, but it feels 100% genuine throughout, with its various metaphors feeling personal to the couple. It’s an endorsement of marital fidelity, to be sure, but it’s handled with a lot more grace than the hackneyed, preachy approach you’d expect from a lot of Christian musicians. As romantic songs go, I prefer the more imaginative “If the Walls Move” from Fire & Stone, but this one’s still pretty solid.
5. Take This Slowly
I can’t say anything overly negative about this song, but I can’t say that I tend to remember a whole lot about it when the album finishes, either. It’s sort of fallen into that void of songs that, for me at least, are just “there”. I seem to enjoy it when I’m listening to it. Acoustic guitar strumming along in 6/8 time, overall upbeat pace, a man trying to remind himself of all the reasons he has to be patient and wait on God’s providence… these are all aspects of the song that I appreciate. There’s something about how it’s constructed that just doesn’t hit me as hard as the song seems to want to – maybe it’s the looser rhythm of Dave’s vocal delivery, or maybe it’s the climactic bridge that doesn’t seem to quite have the gusto that it needs to push it into truly inspirational territory. I don’t know. I keep going back to it hoping I’ve missed something brilliant, and every time I just sort of think, “It’s alright, I guess.”
6. Diamonds and Gold
If you got the hint from the last few songs that this album wasn’t going to be as tightly constructed around a theme or a central set of sonic qualities than the first mini-suite of songs might have led you to believe, then it’ll ease the shock of the bright, peppy keyboards that stick out like a sore thumb on this unabashedly dorky synthpop song. It comes across as the musical equivalent of a dad trying to prove to his kids that he is cool and “hip” to modern trends, not realizing how behind the times he is, and yet for some reason I can’t help but smile and fall in love with it despite its blatantly obvious cheesiness. The lyrics, which basically reject materialism and insist that the flame of their devotion to God and to each other matters way more to them than meaningless riches, aren’t going to win any awards for making astute observations, but there’s something charming about the way they decided the song was deliberately out-of-character for them, couldn’t be forced into the mold of a folksy ballad, and they just went for broke and created the catchiest pop song that they possibly could. Once again, similar song titles lead me to realize there’s a mini-theme at work stretching from “Band of Gold” up through this song – this time centered less around mystical far-off kingdoms and more around the simple reality that they’re never gonna get rich doing this, but they love each other and the process of making art so much that it makes them feel like two of the wealthiest people on the planet.
7. This My Soul
The next three songs also function as a bit of a mini-suite, once again trying to tell a really big story in words that feel as warm and comforting as an afternoon spent curled up with a favorite storybook. I hear echoes of Andrew Peterson, as well as earlier influences like Rich Mullins and even a little bit of Michael Card, in story songs such as these. Describing the fall of man and the arrival of the Son of Man to free us from our own folly is a tall task for a single song, but this one does a pretty good job by way of a meandering melody that piques the listener’s curiosity, feeling like the sort of tune to which timeless legends should be told. The galloping, dramatic chorus doesn’t quite captivate like the title track does, as the song overall is a bit more mellow and modest, but it definitely feels like the sort of thing that could be a backdrop to a really well-produced church pageant.
8. A Living Hope
Producer Ben Shive apparently came up with this track, which is mostly a piano instrumental that acts as a bridge between the tracks surrounding it. The only lyric – “Born into a living hope” – echoes a phrase from the previous song, and the drums and guitars gradually build up anticipation as the song briefly climaxes and then falls away, setting the stage for the Son of Man’s triumphant return.
9. At Last, the King
The church pageant that I’m imagining in my head reaches its pivotal scene with this track, which also starts out with gentle fingerpicking, imagining a conversation between Jesus and the Devil, in which the latter tries in vain to tempt the former out of becoming a martyr for the sake of the human race, but is quickly rebuked: “I have come to be the spotless lamb undone/And I will fall, but not to you.” At this point the language is hitting a lot of the familiar Christian terminology that might require some explaining for someone hearing it for the first time, but with an act like The Gray Havens, I get the impression that their goal is to reiginite the wonder of the familiar things we’ve all believed in for so long, not necessarily for a song to be the entire Gospel in a digestible capsule for newcomers, so I’m OK with it even if some of the language is a bit cliched. Art forms such as music are generally better at getting us to ask questions or to re-awaken feelings we forgot we had, so in terms of the mood it’s trying to evoke, this one hits the mark.
The piano ballad that closes the album most definitely has evangelism on its mind. I don’t mean that in the sense of random strangers approaching you on the street with misspelled signs and poorly-conceived tracts designed to trick you into thinking they’re some other type of literature. It feels like the type of intimate conversation between two friends – one a believer and one still on the fence – that comes across as hopeful but not forceful, with the believer simply reiterating the earlier excitement expressed at how near that invisible kingdom seems to be, and hoping the other person comes to see it the way they do. I can feel the delicate balance of hope and concern in Dave’s voice as he sings, “It’s gonna go in the blink of an eye and I just wanna know you will be there by my side.” One thing that really helps the song to work well from an artistic standpoint, beyond just merely being a song with a good message, is the brilliant piano crescendo that really changes up the mood in the bridge, bringing us full circle as they reprise a melodic passage that was hinted at back in “Ghost in the Valley”, before coming back to bare voice and piano for a final reprise of the chorus. It’s those little nods to intertextuality between their various songs, and the way some of them can change shape rather dramatically just as you’re starting to get used to them, that remind me The Gray Havens strives to make good art in the process of communicating a message, instead of letting the message override the need for a creative presentation as so many CCM artists unfortunately do.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ghost in the Valley $.50
Shadows of the Dawn $1.75
Ghost of a King $2
Band of Gold $1.25
Take This Slowly $.50
Diamonds and Gold $1.50
This My Soul $1.25
A Living Hope $.50
At Last, the King $1
David Radford: Lead vocals, guitar, piano
Licia Radford: Backing vocals, percussion, mandolin, ukulele
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