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It’s been nearly a decade since anything has topped out on my list of ‘favorite albums’ that wasn’t whatever the innocence mission had just released. I don’t think I even paused to realize this until Andrew Peterson broke into the winner’s circle a few months ago with his 2005 recording, The Far Country, and spun me around a few times in surprise, righting me laughing for sheer joy.

And I realize that, what with Peterson all set to release his entirely new Counting Stars in another week or two, a review of an album nearly five years old could tend to make me look a little archaic, if not downright lame. I mean, if he’s that good, (and he is) why not send everybody over to the party that’s happening right now and have done with it? If I’m anticipating Counting Stars to burst and glitter like a shower of fireworks in a summer sky (and it will), why insist on a musical version of a backward glance, just now of all times?

Well, I’ll tell you: I just want as many people as possible to have the experience with this album that I did. If you’ve never been introduced to the music of Andrew Peterson, then I can’t imagine a better place to start than this rhapsody of dying well and living with purpose. (If you already know AP, then for pity’s sake, hie thee over and pre-order Counting Stars! But if you don’t, and if you love the music of a poet after God’s own heart, and if you’ll hail with joy lyrics that are interspersed with references to Tolkien and Lewis, then this review is for you.)

The title track opens with its heart on its sleeve: this is no feel-good Christian pep rally but a staring of hard facts in the face. This life is not all there is. This is not our home. We are strangers wending through an often hostile land. There is much that is not as it should be and death is an inescapable reality. And the longing for the joy that awaits is enough to break our hearts. The second track, Lay Me Down, picks up where the first one leaves off with an ebullient ode to a final rest that is so bristling with life it’s hard to keep a grin from spreading over your face as you listen:

You can lay me anywhere
But just remember this
When you lay me down to die
You lay me down to live.

I never knew there could be so much life in an album that seems preoccupied with death. But nearly every line of every song is aglow with it. Teeming with it; beckoning towards an existence anchored in eternal purpose. Celebrating the life that is truly Life. (And I dare you to listen to The Queen of Iowa without weeping. Particularly if you know the story behind it.)

There’s not a half-hearted song on the entire album: from the lay to life’s partings in The Havens Grey; to the joyous All Shall be Well, from which Julian of Norwich’s beloved quote flashes and warms with a merry blaze; to the inverted question of Mystery of Mercy that resonates like the best musical theology of Michael Card: “My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me?

But my favorite track on the entire album is Little Boy Heart Alive. In this rousing ode to joy, Peterson manages to capture the essence of this wild adventure we call the Christian life. He images all the best dreams of childhood as the indicators of what we’ve been called to and made for, with many a gallant hat-tip hat towards Narnia that will make Lewisites stand up and cheer. We catch that old flash in the lion eyes of Aslan, loved since childhood, and we love him all over again for the love of Who he signifies:

Take a ride on the mighty lion
Take a hold of the golden mane
This is the love of Jesus
So good but it is not tame.

This album is a rare gem, lovingly cut, exquisitely set. But don’t just take my word for it. Give it a listen. Open your heart to its irresistible call to a life captivated by Jesus Christ.

And then—and only then—move on to Counting Stars. Because, believe me, it’s going to be good.

(and by the way, I may as well add that the innocence mission released another album this week… ;))

all lyrics copyright 2005, Jakedog Music