As I get older, the more cognizant I am becoming of my shortcomings. Keeping up with the blog, for one. Writing music reviews, for two. I’ve tried my hand over the years at writing album reviews, but I find they are more difficult to write than book reviews. That said, this post isn’t so much a review as it is a recommendation for Sandra McCracken’s new album Desire Like Dynamite.
We saw McCracken live a couple weeks ago at a small venue in downtown Lancaster. It was just her and her acoustic guitar, playing a flexible setlist and taking requests. She introduced each song with a story about its meaning or background. There was even a receiving line after the show, where she chatted with fans as they left. We found her to be warm, humble, and likeable; we went home feeling like we had known her for a long time. She played several songs from her new album while mixing in old favorites. Overall, a very enjoyable evening out.
This simple acoustic show was different than the sound of her new album, which features a fuller sound than her previous records. But even though there are more layered sounds on this album, McCracken’s voice features prominently, with its stripped down, unflashy, folk sound. It’s a stellar album that has been garnering rave reviews.
At the concert, we learned a lot of the album’s back story. McCracken explained how she is the daughter of a biology teacher, which gave her a deep-rooted appreciation for nature. She also related how she has come to view much of the environmental rhetoric as cliched and shallow. So she wrote a deeper, more complex album that conveys her sadness for the lack of care for creation, as well as ultimate trust in God. One of her goals was to provide a more robust vocabulary of sadness (inspired by McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies), which is reflected in the overall tone of the album being that of lament.
Lament themes are evident, but not in an overpowering or preachy way. Instead, they are thoughtful, passionate, and artful, much like two of her main influences for this album: Wendell Berry and the Psalms. Berry’s influence is hard to miss, especially on the songs Redbird, Gridlock, In the Garden, and the title track. The title track was inspired by the closing of Berry’s novel Jayber Crow:
I dreamed I heard the sound of the last great god bird singing
Lying in the trees I could hear the ax machines that were ringing
This is like a fable to be told, but I’d rather put it down
Will we choose the noise of our desire or the hope that makes no sound?
That said, this album is not just about the environment, nor is it a protest album. There are also prevalent notes of forgiveness, parenting and children, and longing. You may recognize McCracken’s name from her work on the Indelible Grace projects over the years, so it should not be surprising that there are biblical themes present. Biblical, but not in a way that these songs would ever be played on K-Love. In fact, several of the songs have psalm-like qualities: themes of waiting, light, lament, hope, and restoration. Glimmers of hope undergird the lament on the album, giving the lament a reason and a direction. My favorite song on the album is probably Hourglass, which is a subtle example of this hope underneath lament:
We’re tangled in the cords
Of every new invention we are begging to ignore
And I saw our home
For the first one was gone, every good thing was restored
And the sea was no more.
The album fittingly closes with In the Garden, not to be confused with the awful “hymn” of the same name. Imagery of gardens and the seasons is juxtaposed with longing for the consummation of all things and hope in the resurrection:
The winter branches, gray the landscape
Like snow, in silence we are found
Disconnected bones, dust and ashes
We will be raised, one body from the ground
Red the rose, the years like vapor
The king, the table, and the feast
We are waiting for the consummation
Until the sword is thrown into the sea.
I highly recommend this album; it is (buzzword alert!) thoughtful, honest, sincere, poetic, and *gasp* authentic. Some closing ramblings: her songwriting shows artistry and maturity, comparisons to Sara Groves on a couple songs are not far-fetched, Matthew Perryman Jones and Derek Webb make cameo appearances, and the song Sweet Amelia was written for her friends’ adoption. You can get a sampler of the album below via Noise Trade, or purchase the album here. Tour dates can be found here.