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A Fragile Stone

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Mar
A Fragile Stone
Sounds like … occasionally bluesy folk pop reminiscent of great 70s songwriters like Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor, Elton John, and Cat Stevens, featuring a number of talented guest musicians like Béla Fleck and Kirk Whalum.At a Glance … Michael Card's tendency towards predictable simplistic pop is outdone by the impressive musicianship, eclectic styles, and typically thoughtful message.

Over the course of his twenty-two years as a recording artist, the songwriting of Michael Card has become synonymous with Bible study. Few have so consistently used the album medium to expound upon scripture and truth. He explored the book of Hebrews with 2000's Soul Anchor, and did the same for Proverbs and Revelation with 1990's The Way of Wisdom and 1997's Unveiled Hope, respectively. Browsing Michael's discography, there are scant examples of projects (outside of live albums and hits collections) that don't serve as some kind of musical commentary or exposition on scripture.

A Fragile Stone continues the tradition by exploring the character of the apostle Simon Peter, whom Jesus christened "rock." It is Michael's thesis that Christ did not rename Simon because of his strength of character; he failed Jesus a number of times in the Gospels. Instead, it simply established him as the foundation of the new church that Christ would build upon. This much is spelled out in the short title track that opens the album, which goes on to explore Peter's faith and failings in the other nine songs.

Though Michael has a gift for writing beautiful melodies, he also has a tendency toward writing predictable and simplistic folk pop songs that sound the same on a base level, reminiscent of 70s artists like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. There's nothing wrong with the compositions in themselves, but Michael's consistent writing style could allow him to easily swap melodies and lyrics within his repertoire – his texts about Revelation, for example, could easily be set to his melodies for Proverbs. The trick that characterizes Michael's songs is in the pairing of his lyricism with an appropriate arrangement. Soul Anchor was indeed Michael's most soulful album because of the gospel sounds, while Unveiled Hope was more sweeping and majestic to celebrate Christ's second coming.

Consequently, some of the tracks on A Fragile Stone, as co-produced by Michael with Keith Compton, are more interesting than others depending on the arrangement. The pleasant title track is perhaps the blandest of the album, relying on a typical acoustic pop arrangement for a song co-written with his longtime pal Scott Roley, who blends perfectly here in a vocal duet. The acoustic "His Gaze" also exemplifies Michael's writing style with a simple folk melody joined to a scholarly subject. In this case, it's a reflection upon a specific kind of gaze used by Jesus in reference to Peter, used sparingly in the Gospels of Luke and John. "Mourning the Death of a Dream" is another pretty and brief piano ballad, accompanied only by cello, that poetically muses over the things we leave behind for the sake of the call – specifically, a normal family life in the case of both Michael Card and Simon Peter.

Still, other tracks on the album take on a bluesy folk pop sound that somehow feels appropriate to the blue-collar character of Simon Peter. Michael resurrects his old 1982 narrative "Stranger on the Shore" to reenact Jesus' last exchange with Peter, when He confirmed the disciple's fundamental importance to the establishment of the Church. This version is more acoustic than the original, accompanied only by guitar, cello, and tabla percussion. The gently percussive "I Am Not Supposed to Be Here" bases its message on Peter's calling to reach out to the Gentiles with the gospel message (recorded in Acts 10) to remind us that Jesus challenges us to be a rule breaker like He was. "Living Stones" looks to the book of 1 Peter, in which the apostle invites us to build Christ's holy house with him – the track features Michael trading vocals with two gospel singers, accompanied only by his piano playing.

On recent albums, Michael has been inspired to stretch musically, displaying a newfound love of gospel music and a desire to draw upon the community of artists, similar to the reasoning behind Rich Mullins's Ragamuffin Band. These elements are what made Soul Anchor and his recent live album Scribbling in the Sand so enjoyable, and they also elevate A Fragile Stone to something special. "I Left Everything to Follow You" uses Peter's words to offer inspiration and hope to all the missionaries of the world, and Michael infuses it with a bluesy pop feel thanks to his inspired piano playing, a small backing gospel choir, and the sublime talents of saxophonist Kirk Whalum — "But what is my petty offering to Your sacrifice? / I gave up my home, but You left paradise." Kirk and the gospel choir rejoin Michael and his piano for the terrifically soulful "Not That Kind of King," which also features the vocal talents of Darwin Hobbs to remind us that Jesus wasn't what anyone expected (as found in Peter's famous rebuke of Jesus' death in Matthew 16).

Most impressive of all are the pair of tracks that feature banjo master Béla Fleck. The musicianship is an absolute treat on "Sea of Souls," a sea shanty styled folk song about Peter's calling to be a "fisher of men." It unfolds into an eight-minute bluesy folk jam comprised of fiddle, hammer dulcimer, pennywhistle, Hurdy Gurdy, Béla's stunning banjo work, and the equally impressive piano solos of Vance Taylor. Clearly Michael recognizes this as the disc's highlight, adding a three-and-a-half minute stripped down version of the jam at the album's end. Equally fun is "Walking on the Water," a rousing bluegrass romp that injects the album with energy.

When all is said and done, A Fragile Stone is vintage Michael Card in its typically simplistic songwriting and thoughtful treatment of scripture related themes. It ranks among Michael's best studio albums, however, thanks to the skilled musicianship and eclectic styles, demonstrating that the veteran artist is still willing to take chances – in this case uniting the joys of performance with his inspired message.