Tell Me What You Know
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2007 1 Nov
- Song for My Sons
- In the Girl There's a Room
- Say a Prayer
- Love Is Still a Worthy Cause
- When the Saints
- I Saw What I Saw
- It Might Be Hope
- The Long Defeat
- You Are Wonderful
It truly stuns me that Sara Groves has yet to gain significant recognition as an artist. So few in today's Christian music scene are as articulate and poetic in expressing their beliefs. It goes without saying she's one of the few artists on the planet who combines faith and artistry so well in songcraft. The problem has been her quiet, unassuming folk-pop style, which historically has never exactly burned up the charts. Also consider Christian music's apparent aversion to thoughtful songwriting. For every Chris Rice or Nichole Nordeman recognized by the professional members of the Gospel Music Association, a songwriting legend is overlooked (Keith Green), awarded behind-the-scenes (Steve Taylor, Charlie Peacock), or remembered posthumously (Rich Mullins).
What Groves needs to break big is a hit radio single, leading to a best-selling album and some well-deserved accolades. Imagine how different things would be if she had her equivalent to "I Can Only Imagine" on Christian radio. Pop credibility seemed the intent when she teamed with producer Brown Bannister (MercyMe, Amy Grant) for 2005's Add to the Beauty, an excellent effort that felt a little too labored in trying to match Groves' songwriting with a broader pop style.
Bannister and Groves have collaborated once again for her seventh album, only this time the fusion of songwriting and sound is more effortless. After repeated listens, I'm left to conclude that Tell Me What You Know is not only Sara Groves' most radio-friendly album to date, but also her best album so far—a worthy successor not only to Conversations and All Right Here (generally considered her best two projects), but also to Amy Grant's Behind the Eyes.
The album is an interesting dichotomy of somber themes and upbeat tracks (only a few of the 11 songs would qualify as a genuine ballad). The reason it seems to mesh so well is that the album is squarely focused on the nature of hope in the midst of hopelessness. Groves draws upon themes of tragedy and social justice—Hurricane Katrina, Rwanda genocide, sex trafficking, International Justice Mission—and uses them to explore the human condition and the love of God.
Hence why the folksy "Say a Prayer" isn't really a downer. Though sad and evocative in tone, inspired by testimonies of sex trafficking and slavery victims, it ultimately points to the power of prayer to sustain us through hard times. Then "I Saw What I Saw," which is vintage Groves and Sarah McLachlan in sound, delivers an uplifting ballad that takes courage from martyrs and survivors, finding good in spite of tragedy. And the empowering "In the Girl There's a Room" (co-written with Peacock) stands as one of Groves' best songs yet, powerfully illustrating the strong "flame" of unwavering hope with a bluesy edge reminiscent of Ginny Owens or Jonatha Brooke: "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."
Indeed there are songs. "It Might Be Hope" is one of the key tracks, a big piano pop anthem reminiscent of Vanessa Carlton and Joy Williams about discovering hope after a long drought of despair. "The Long Defeat" gets to the essence of faith and perseverance, fighting the good fight not because we hope to win, but because it's what is right. "When the Saints" is buoyant and almost gospel sounding, yet prayerfully introspective, looking to saints like Paul and Silas as examples of faith through hardship—Groves' "I see the … " montage during the closing vamp then brilliantly applies that theme to today's heroes and tribulations.
More so than usual, this gifted songwriter has stepped beyond herself and her own life experiences, offering personalized expressions of other people's experiences. Sure, "Songs for My Sons" is written for her two boys, advising them to let love dictate their lives (Matthew 24:12-13), but it's not a soggy lullaby and is written so that anyone can relate to it. "Honesty," propelled by a rhythm-and-piano flow, challenges us to be open with their shortcomings so we can change for the better. And in spite of the generic title, "You Are Wonderful" (written with Whiteheart's Gordon Kennedy) makes a delightful pop ditty that celebrates a life of faith with God, reminding us at album's end of his presence through all things.
Tell Me What You Know succeeds in taking Groves' sound into new directions (soulfulness, honest-to-goodness guitar solos, faster rhythms) without compromising her style or songwriting. It feels like a natural progression for her music, sounding like the album she has been gearing for since 2001, while reminding us again why she's steadily gained a devoted following in the first place. Accolades or not, Groves has rightfully earned a place alongside Amy Grant, Nichole Nordeman, Rich Mullins, and others by articulating Christian living and faith so perfectly. I wouldn't dream of pretending it's an album for everyone, but if Tell Me What You Know doesn't turn you on to Groves' work, nothing will.