Monday, September 24, 2007

Music Review: Tell Me What You Know from Sara Groves

Oh, tell me what you know
about God and the world and the human soul,
How so much can go wrong
and still there are songs.
In 2006, Sara Groves took a trip with Gary Haugen (of International Justice Mission) to Rwanda. What she saw there changed her – maybe not radically, but in an accumulation of subtle shifts. Her latest album, Tell Me What You Know, is in a way her conversation with us about what she experienced. Listening to Tell Me What You Know, I cannot help but believe she learned about hope; hope in the direst of circumstances, hope to endure and overcome.

Sara Groves - Tell Me What You KnowAt times stylistically a little different from her previous work, this album has an overall energy that pulls you from one song to the next as Sara explores this theme of hope. The album opens with "Song for My Sons" which is, as you would expect, for her sons (and daughter). As Sara liltingly sings her hope for her sons, you hear your own prayers for your children. But, to be honest, when I play the album I find myself wanting to skip through to the next song "In The Girl There’s A Room" – not because "Song for My Sons" is a bad song, but because I know what is coming up next. "In The Girl There's A Room", from which the above chorus and album title are taken, is a song that sticks in your head. Inspired by stories from IJM (and co-written with Charlie Peacock), Sara looks inside each of these people and finds hope in the face of sorrow and pain and horrors. "In our hearts and souls / an unstoppable refrain / hope stands in defiance". The chanted verses and catchy chorus pull you into the rhythm of the song and stay with you, and "In The Girl" is one of the highlights of the album.

Another highpoint on the album is found in "I Saw What I Saw". This was actually the first song I heard on the album, as a video of this song overlaid with clips of Sara in Rwanda was released on YouTube several weeks ago (the video can be viewed
here). Sounding like the piano-driven work of Add To The Beauty, "I Saw What I Saw" recounts how her experience in Rwanda has changed her life.
your pain has changed me
your dream inspires
your face a memory
your hope a fire
your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
and what I know of love
Sara gives us a pair of songs serving as calls for action with "Love Is Still A Worthy Cause" and "When The Saints". In "Love Is Still A Worthy Cause", she addresses our frustration and desire to give up when things do not go as we would wish them; she implores us to press on in our work for God. "when you count the cost and all seems lost / love is still a worthy cause / when you're pressing on though your strength is gone / love is still a worthy cause." With "When The Saints", Sara takes a turn on the traditional song. Instead of focusing on the hope of marching into heaven to see old friends, though, she turns to marching into the battle we face every day to live for God. Beginning with a reference to Jeremiah 20:9 (which goes back to her song "Jeremiah" from The Other Side of Something), Sara talks about the passion to act in God's name and, again, the frustration of so much to be done. "I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard / I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars." Dwelling on the courage and passion of those who have gone before, she calls us to join in step and join in the fight where we can. ("When The Saints" is already available as a single from iTunes and in retail stores.)

The songs "Honesty" and "Abstraction" look at just how well we know ourselves and how well we can know others. With the latter, Sara sings about how, no matter how well we think we know a person, there are depths that we cannot fathom. When we try to understand a person, even ourselves, there is too much for our limited humanity to take in and out of necessity we leave reality and enter the abstract, the simplified, to try to grasp the entirety of the person. In "Honesty", inspired by
Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thoughts, she encourages honesty with ourselves as a step towards salvation "only the truth and truthfulness can save us now." Both are very compelling and deep songs requiring us to take a fresh look at our lives and our perceptions of those around us.

With the song "Say A Prayer", Sara is remembering the trials of a childhood lost (or taken away) in the struggle to survive. It was inspired by the prayers of a teenage girl, kidnapped from her home in Southeast Asia and sold into slavery in a brothel in a foreign country. She endured eight months of forced prostitution - with the others mocking her faith in God to save her from this life - before being rescued by an operative of IJM (a scene recalled in a line in "When The Saints"). Sara brings her sorrow and hope to life in this song. "The Long Defeat" is a call for endurance and encouragement in our daily struggles with sin – we've already lost the battle for perfection, but as we continue to strive for this goal we must not shy away from the fight that seems impossible. She prays for inspiration and guidance and relief. With "It Might Be Hope", Sara nicely summarizes the overall theme of the album, how hope lingers on and can still be found in everyone. She closes the album with "You Are Wonderful", an offering of praise to her Savior and friend, Jesus. Given the normal stylistic models of modern praise and worship songs, you might expect this to sound flowing and somewhat grandiose – you'd be wrong. Sara sounds like a girl talking to her good friend in a simply presented, almost bouncy lyric.

How good is the album? Some of the songs don't work for me as well as I would have hoped, "You Are Wonderful" and "Song For My Sons" being examples of this. (Not to say they are bad songs - I actually like the beat of "Song For My Sons", but for some reason it still doesn't work as well as I would like.) There are other songs that keep running through my head as I hear the melody and ponder the words and meanings, such as "In The Girl There’s A Room", "I Saw What I Saw", and "When The Saints". The rest, though not the songs I am first drawn to, I find grow on me more every time I listen to them (it'll take me a while to unpack everything in "Honesty" and "Abstraction"). I would recommend this album to anyone who likes to hear well-written music sung with passion and vibrancy. Overall, it is a very good album and continues Sara's proclivity for producing thought-provoking and entertaining music well worth listening to.

Tell Me What You Know hits the stores on November 6th. You can hear more song clips, read the lyrics, and pre-order a copy at
Sara Groves' store.

(P.S. I would like to thank Christy at
INO Records for providing this pre-release. She's such a nice gal!)

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Amy said...

Great review, can't wait to get it! I was just listening to Add to the Beauty again last night, and remembering how much I liked it!

Anonymous said...

Good review, euphrony. I can't wait to hear the whole album. I was over at Brown Bannister's house last night for a string session at his studio, and I talked to him for a little while about Sara and the new CD. I think it's great that industry veterans like Brown and Charlie Peacock are behind her.

euphrony said...

Stephen - name dropping? I'm jealous.

I'm glad you both found it to be a good review. I tried to be professional and cover the good and bad, to give an honest review. As you probably figured while reading, I focus a great deal on lyrics and their meaning/significance and not just on musicality of the album. That, to me, contributes at least as much as the music in determining if a song/album is worth a listen.

scotirish said...

When it comes to Sara Groves there is always more than the music and the lyrics. I first met Sara in prison when she was 3 months old. Kinda got your attention with that, didn't I? Its true, her parents brought her in as part of a Christmas service. In an unplanned sort of way she took the role of Jesus and elicited the cry of a newborn. The prisoners were amazed to hear the cry of a baby not knowing she was even there. Sara has now gone back to that prison many times as it is where her grandparents, Lloyd and Nita have been christian volunteers for almost 40 years. And thats my point about Sara e.g. Rwanda, Katrina, Prisons, girls sold into sex slavery. Kinda tells you shes something special.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the previews... I love Sara Groves, listening to He's Always Been Faithful saved my faith : )

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