Sara Groves: Floodplain

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Sara Groves’ latest release, Floodplain, is an invitation through means of honest lyrics and lilting melodies, not just to hear what she says, but to see what she sees.

The album’s theme is expedition. From the first track, “This Cup,” the storyteller wakes the listener from a dream and paints a picture away from the addictions that numb. Then the arc of the story begins in the next song, “Expedition.” The piano ostinato mirrors waves on the shore.

Meet me at the river, oh
Fashion us a raft and oar
We’re going on an expedition
Looking for lost time

Melodies and rhythm patterns from these lines weave throughout the songs that follow.

The listener is drawn into a world of water; we step into the boat with Groves as the experienced guide. The story arc twists and turns in a surprise with one of my favorites, “Second Guess Girl.” Musically, this diverges from her other work. In an exuberant ’60s folk-style groove, we hear influences of Janis Joplin and Carole King. We can also hear echoes of Peter Gabriel throughout the record.

Next we round the river bend and approach the title track, “Floodplain.” A sweeping vista opens, epic in scale.

Sara has not forgotten the humble. With justice work (IJM) close to her heart, she identifies with the plight of the immigrants who have made their homes in the shadow of the wild Mississippi River. She empathizes in metaphor — “watching for rain” and watching the tide come in and out of her own heart.

Some hearts are built on the floodplain.

We continue down a stretch of river that breathes in wide open spaces. New musical surprises emerge that differ from past records: long interludes of electric guitar, cello, or piano phrases are welcome. The listener is given space to contemplate the expedition scenery. Some patterns of line and melody trail off without a resolution. Not every question has an answer.

Then Floodplain has a second act. Our boat is traveling to Sara’s house. We make a steep turn and glimpse pictures of her family and friends. In “Signal,” Groves speaks blessing on a child growing into adulthood.

Your heart goes out
I can hear your song
Your signal is getting stronger
Your signal is getting strong
There’s no cliché when I hear your song
Your signal is getting stronger
Your signal is getting strong

Sara is a strong lyricist. Like her previous work, she uses varied repetition and subtle changes in repeated sections. This attention to detail reveals itself upon multiple listens to the songs, and such details also are also heard in Floodplain‘s instrumentation. In “Signal,” we hear the pairing of modern electronic sounds paired with traditional acoustic instruments. This mirrors the pairing of the new and old generation. This beautiful lullaby — from outer space — celebrates a mother’s love that is outside the bounds of time.

We move from the rooms in her house to the room inside the storyteller’s soul. This expedition turns inward and deeply personal with “My Dream.” The storyteller admits that the darkness and melancholy weigh heavily. Personal doubt and assurance have evaporated. Is she enough? Is her faith enough? Then comfort comes with an image as she falls asleep. A gentle God waiting for her. Not just waiting, but running towards her.

Our time is almost up. When “Expedition” comes back in the reprise we realize we are back at our own home. We are different and better for the journey.

Spread the map out on the grass
Scenes appear like photographs
While we search
The starlings play
Reeds on the shoreline
Nod and sway


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