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I’ve been writing about the music of Andrew Peterson for nearly ten years now. The first time was in an e-mail dated August 8, 2001. The tone of my prose was that of a breathless fanboy. I suspect Andy gets a lot of these notes:
I listen to your music on my morning walks around the lake and in the car. When I walk, sometimes the converging of your music and the physical beauty of the scenery makes me feel like flying. As I listen, mostly what occurs to me is the truth of your writing. As much as religion has become part of pop culture today, it’s rare to find Christianity articulated in a profound and compelling way. Your music does that.
I’ll admit to being a loyalist; once a supporter, always a supporter. I don’t shed my favorite artists like an old skin. Though I embrace variety and feel as if I’m on a perpetual quest for the next musical panacea–like the Lewis and Clark of the new music world–the songs of Andrew Peterson have been one constant. And a constant companion.
I can tell you that Andrew has a thing about mountains. And thunder. Someday I’m going to count those musical references, just for fun. That’s the kind of thing that nerds do. With a prolific discography that extends beyond ten years now, there’s an impressive body of work from which lovely patterns emerge.
We know, for example, that Andy is a family man. That’s not just a nod to the song from Love and Thunder, it’s one of the consistent values we observe from his discography: his uncles, his daddy and mama, brother, grandpa, children, and wife. Those are just a few direct references that come immediately to mind. More subtle is the living pulse of family that permeates so many other Peterson songs.
In the early days of my fandom, I quickly learned that Andrew is an often contrarian writer, far more than his gentle nature might imply. But his words are contrarian only to the extent that they serve the truth, quite unlike a pedestrian praise and worship exposition. When his pencil meets paper, expect convention to be turned on its head. Consider, for example, “No More Faith,” a song that was misunderstood by more than a few:
I say faith is a burden, it`s a weight to bear.
It`s brave and bittersweet.
And hope is hard to hold to
Lord I believe, only help my unbelief
Till there`s no more faith and no more hope,
I`ll see your face and Lord I`ll know that only love remains.
Faith, a burden? Who’d a thunk it? Brave and bittersweet? What’s that all about? And hope is hard to hold to? Why would hope be hard for a believer? These are the kinds of questions that come from those of us unwilling or unable to match the songwriter’s thoughtfulness.
What some may not know is that Andrew has taken some heat for his sometimes contrarian style. “Mohawks on the Scaffold” and “Land of the Free” are two examples that come to mind. The latter became controversial because some critics thought it was inappropriate that the writer “is just a little jealous of the nothing that you have.” “He’s making light of poverty,” they said. The former apparently contained thicker sarcasm than some could digest. Or maybe it was the quote from Tommy Boy that people didn’t like. I don’t know. (For extra credit, what is the Tommy Boy quote?)
So after a decade of listening to the careful, articulate observations of Andrew Peterson, I downloaded Counting Stars. I’m letting you know right now that I gave up comparing one Andrew Peterson project to another; I realized that comparing the relative greatness of a new AP release to earlier recordings was silly, like trying to compare kids, or mountains, or thunderstorms.
Something else I’ve learned as a long-time supporter is that I can expect a nearly uncomfortable dose of candor from Andrew Peterson in every project. What this man has done for “Christian” music is not so much tell the truth, as it has been to tell the truth in a true way. Paint-by-number Christian songs that reveal some hint of darkness inevitably resolve, wrapped with a pretty red bow just in time for the last verse. There comes a denouement in which the birds suddenly sing like spontaneous combustion, and the writer is a good Christian again.
Meanwhile, the protagonist in an Andrew Peterson song lies prostrate on the ground, bleating for comfort, wondering why the religious talk sounds hollow and inauthentic.
Before my first listen, I watched the promotional video for Counting Stars and was moved to misty eyes when I began to sense the imagery of the primary theme.
“God took Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.'” Genesis 15:5
Hey, that’s the mother bear of all promises, no? And we’ve all been witnesses to the profoundly, unspeakably beautiful way in which he delivered on that promise. Can I get a witness?
By the way, this isn’t a review. In all fairness, as of this writing, I haven’t listened to the record enough to provide fair perspective for a review. I like to give myself at least ten listens before I start typing. Because an Andrew Peterson project is so rich–especially this one–I need to double that. So please consider these words as a primer–first impressions, if you will–something to whet your appetite.
My first listen to Counting Stars was on a trek through the freshly harvested wheat fields of Kansas last week. It brought back memories of my inaugural listen to Clear to Venus, which occurred on a similar drive to Kansas City, on a parallel track just a few miles to the east. As I slid the CD into the drive, an eagle flew high above a farm pond and a wild patch of cottonwood trees.
As Counting Stars began to unfold, my earnest hope was validated. I realized with each line that Counting Stars was a rich celebration of God’s providence and promise. God uses the vehicles of the family and the Church to reveal his love and faithfulness in ways we might understand. And in Counting Stars we have an artful and skillful portrayal of that truth.
The great challenge of any writer is to convey the complexity and intensity of emotion over time. There’s something about the passage of time which makes deeply held emotions more meaningful. It’s the difference between infatuation and enduring love. Infatuation is easy; love is hard. And like the final scene in Big Fish or Toy Story 3, the passage of time reminds us of skinned knees and broken hearts which left scars, but have somehow been patched and redeemed with patience, kindness, and forgiveness. The three-month giddy love of a twenty-something couple is cute; the wrinkled hands of Eric Peters’s aged couple in “These Hands” is profoundly moving because we have an idea of what went before, for so long.
It was in that context that I realized Andrew Peterson and his buddies were about to tell the tale of the most enduring love story ever told. Further, I realized that they faced a profound challenge. Still, I couldn’t wait to hear them rise to meet it.
“Many Roads” starts with a familiar Peterson cadence which he uses when he’s building to something beautiful. This guy knows his audience. He knows we come to his shows expecting something special. We want to hear that story again. And yes, we bring our hopes and fears. We also bring an expectation of a certain humility because that’s what we’ve seen in the heart of this songwriter before. In “Many Roads,” that humble bearing comes in the form of some inside humor and a twist worthy of M. Night Shamalama Ding Dong. I won’t spoil the moment of Act 3. Discover it yourself. I wish you a fraction of the joy I received from it.
“Dancing in the Minefields” is a picture of the wide contrast between unmitigated joy and homespun reality. It’s what happens after the honeymoon. Veteran Andrew Peterson fans take note: this project–though wholly original and compelling–is full of nods to earlier AP projects, which is not only fun, but moving. Seek and you will find.
One of the first references are the echoes of “Don’t give up on me,” in the background vocals of “Dancing in the Minefields.” It’s a sublime nod (yes, nods can be sublime, thank you) to “Don’t Give Up on Me” the track from Resurrection Letters Vol. 2. This song cleverly meshes promises echoing from earthen vessels with the divine promises made to Abraham and his descendents.
“Planting Trees” is a musical cousin to “Windows in the World,” from Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2, with a nearly identical guitar picking pattern, but in a slightly lower key. “Windows in the World” provides lyrical evidence of God in the world; conversely, “Planting Trees” isolates human creation as a reflection of God in the world. As the moon reflects the sun, so believers are called to reflect Christ. Andy uses the metaphor of planting trees to illustrate. This song begins with the universal and moves to the personal, the opposite of “Dancing in the Minefields, which begins with something personal and ends more broadly.
“The Magic Hour” is my kind of praise and worship song. It begins with what I thought was a beautiful Ben Shive piano introduction. Turns out, Andy does more keyboarding than usual on this project and it’s his piano playing that we hear. I couldn’t help but think that while others are celebrating happy hour, the writer celebrates “The Magic Hour.”
Is there any doubt that the place described in this song is a real place? The beautiful bridge integrates the eternal with the temporal and the divine with humanity. Sara Groves’s harmony, in my mind, symbolizes the integration of the two. “Watching the children laugh” is reminiscent of the line in “Don’t Give up on Me” from Resurrection Letters Vol. 2, about the golden dream with “angel voices in the rooms where the children run, all covered in light.”
“World Traveler” takes us on three kinds of journeys, one literal, one figurative, and one eternal. For newbies, please find here exhibit one as evidence for the songwriting wisdom of Andrew Peterson, who routinely consolidates related but separate verses into a literate, consolidated whole. It began with “All the Way Home” from Carried Along, and continues on Counting Stars with “World Traveler.” The “wade into the battle” line could be thought of as a concurrent nod to C.S. Lewis and “Little Boy Heart Alive,” from The Far Country, which contains a similar line.
“Isle of Skye” is a microcosm of the simple, elegant production character of Counting Stars. With such rich ingredients, the song doesn’t need to be long, either in words or instrumentation. It may be a decade or more before this little girl understands the depth of the love seeping from each measure of this song, but when it dawns on her, it will be something to behold.
This is another Ben Shive arrangement, with the intermittent instrumental spice of John Painter’s horns, David Henry’s cello and violin, and keys from Peterson. If the introductory piano lick sounds vaguely familiar, check out Ben Shive’s “4th of July” from Ill-Tempered Klavier. In fact, you may not be surprised to find more than a few moments that remind you of The Ill-Tempered Klavier, since Ben shares producer credit with Andy Gullahorn. The beauty of these collaborative efforts is the extent to which the whole is enhanced by the contribution of the individual parts.
“God of My Fathers” is an ideal theme song for this collection as the promise of the past is realized in the truth of the present. If you don’t have a copy of Carried Along, get one and check out a song called “All the Way Home,” which comes from the same genealogical lyrical line of “God of My Fathers.” Ya wanna feel good? I mean really good? Just lock this inspirational ditty on repeat. You say it’s been years since you’ve danced? This one may just impassion you enough to grab a partner and do-si-do in your living room. But don’t let this song’s perky demeanor make you lose sight of its thankful, prayerful, hopeful, personal wish for generational synchronicity.
“Fool with a Fancy Guitar” is a song about who we are in Christ. Rabbit Room readers may wonder if Ron Block was the passive theological influence of this song. He often reminds readers that as believers, we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. In “Fool With a Fancy Guitar,” we find the screaming paradox of faith. Truth isn’t always tidy. Even in God the Father, we find apparent contradictory characteristics, which are also explored in the flagship song “The Reckoning.”
“In the Night My Hope Lives On” has an old west vibe underlying its referenced Bible stories: everything from the Old Testament to the prodigal son, prostitutes, and Christ himself. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle is worth whatever they had to pay him. It embellishes, punctuates, and highlights the song. In the fiddle we feel the hopeful tune rising like the mist on the day of resurrection, revealing the victorious, risen Christ. “In the Night My Hope Lives On” is a first cousin–both musically and lyrically–to “High Noon” from Love and Thunder.
“You Came So Close” feels so personal that it’s a little uncomfortable to hear. It’s a song about a person who broke his wedding vows. It feels scary, sad, and dark. Apparently, the man finds some measure of redemption, but as the song ends with the echo of the word “hope” we have the sense that the final verse of this song is yet to be written.
“The Last Frontier (A Lament)” is another masterpiece (with yet another mountain reference). We inevitably contrast “Nothing to Say” with “The Last Frontier” and despite Andy’s habitual candor–to which I should be accustomed–I am still left with my jaw on the floor. You have never heard the timbre of this man’s voice more stark, deep, and real than on the performance of this song. You think “The Silence of God” from Love and Thunder was full of candor? You haven’t heard anything yet. Benjamin Disraeli said, “There is no wisdom like frankness.” Placing this profoundly mournful song as preparation for the next song,”The Reckoning,” was a good choice indeed.
“The Reckoning” starts out with Andrew Osenga’s wandering, pondering electric guitar. Then, as if the writer suddenly summoned the courage to proceed with the boldness of tough questions, it takes off like a rifle shot, with an urgent, arresting tone, a musical intimation that the songwriter means business. It begins with a humble acknowledgment of the power of God. If I were getting ready to pose some of the questions that arise in “The Reckoning,” I think I’d provide a preface of humility too.
The perfectly logical questions will no longer be suppressed. Faith without questions isn’t a mature faith. Humans were created with an intellect. So we ask questions like, “How long?” “How long before this curtain is lifted?” “How long before this burden is lifted?” “How long until the reckoning?” The bridge is an intellectual acknowledgment of the paradoxical character of God (the God of Love and Thunder), which we won’t fully understand this side of heaven. Apparently, that’s why they call it faith.
“The Same Song” is dedicated to the Square Peg Alliance and the kinship of community that results when believers realize that to some extent, we are all the same. It’s fun hearing references that might only be apparent to those that have supported the SPA as long as some of us around here have. Not surprisingly, we see that the threads which solidify the Pegs are the same threads that inspire those of us who buy the records.
Counting Stars is a paradox in that the songwriting is perhaps as personal as we’ve heard from Andrew Peterson. On the other hand, there’s a clear theme which examines the promises and faithfulness of a timeless God working his will in time and through humanity. Andrew Peterson’s most dedicated supporters understand his gift for writing poetically, with thoughtful double entendres and rich literary allusions. Still, despite being written and recorded expeditiously, the project may turn out to be as fertile as any of his projects, with levels, vistas, and perspectives which overwhelm our senses.
Counting Stars is a love letter to someone and everyone. It’s personal, yet universal. It’s candid and clear, yet mysterious. It illustrates a promise made and a promise fulfilled. The stars Abraham saw when God made the Promise are the same stars that guided the three wise men to Jesus, the same stars our fathers and grandfathers witnessed on the night that we were born. Those stars represent the faithfulness of the one true God, the Father of the risen Christ, who loves and redeems us despite our rebellious nature and our intermittent unbelief.