I still remember the day I saw that stories were about more than events, but ideas, characters, and truth. This discovery didn't extend into music until recently. Could there be an equivalent of great literature in music? I watched the ideas. Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy takes on the loss of innocence, and ultimate redemption. Matthew Perryman Jones’s impossibly good Land of the Living is so complex I still haven’t figured it all out, but dabbles in sin, death, grief, and redemption. I leapt into the stimulating world of ideas and their expression through music and poetic metaphor.
Sara Groves’s Invisible Empires is a first, though. She takes on ideas, all right, but ones that you generally wouldn’t find in music and certainly not in the mainstream CCM. Ideas like: bio-ethics, escapism, current politically correct ideology, the pressure to conform to society’s ideal, and death. It sounds more like science fiction topics.
To take on something like this has pitfalls. With sloppy execution and platitudinous answers, it’ll leave us feeling unsatisfied and cheated. With such great subject matter, it could also fall short of fully exploring the topics. The latter is a bit of a problem with Empires, but this is mostly because several ideas turn up briefly, connected with the greater themes, and feel a bit like teasers. This somewhat muddies the waters and confuses the focus, but not very much.
The first pitfall is avoided by a wide margin. Groves is no amateur. Her lyrics hold up, speaking truth through non-frilly poetry and stating the problems with Hemingwayesque simplicity. In Scientists In Japan, speaking of the current popular terror of death and our efforts to live longer, she says:
“We rob from Peter to extend Paul’s life, ’cause dying ain’t no way to die.”
With a great talent for minimalism, she says a whole lot without saying much at all. Her point is unescapably true. What other way is there to die? We are left speechless in the face of our own illusions. The ideas that thread throughout the album are gracefully and subtly treated without giving us the Sunday School answers. Scientists in Japan takes what could easily be a sermon and injects a surprising note of poignancy (but not cheap sentimentality) into an oft-sterilized debate.
In Obsolete, Groves paints our highly scientific society and the plight of those outside the upper echelons. We consider ourselves the end-all-be-all when it comes to answers, “as if the train will only stop for the current paradigm.” She rejects the mechanized view, embracing the importance of a physical, spiritual connection, affirming that while “[I] can rise in the halls of power…Without love I am nothing.”
The weightier subjects never become depressing, and there are simpler songs interspersed. Eyes on the Prize, with great African spiritual vocals, spices up Groves’s somewhat predictable voice. Precious is her Chestertonian call to wonder. A note of vulnerability comes as she embraces her own inadequacies in Finite.
Overall, a terrific album—easygoing but enjoyable—that asks some of the big questions and even dares to give answers.
Give it a try with this sampler/interview.