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The Far Country

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 1 Aug
The Far Country
Sounds like … the beautifully produced acoustic pop/folk of Rich Mullins, Caedmon's Call, Derek Webb, and James Taylor, with some nods to Marc Cohn, Bruce Hornsby, and even Coldplay.At a glance … another outstanding effort from Peterson, who broadens his stylistic range a bit for this insightful and hopeful album that's primarily focused on passing from this world into life everlasting.Track ListingThe Far CountryLay Me DownThe Queen of IowaLittle Boy Heart AliveThe Havens GrayMystery of MercyMountains on the Ocean FloorAll Shall Be WellFor the Love of GodMore

If I were to compile a list of today's best Christian artists that aren't receiving due attention, Andrew Peterson would be among them. Granted, not everyone can get past his nasal vocal tone, which almost comes across as a parody of Michael W. Smith and Rich Mullins. But in spite of their vocal qualities, those legends found success because of their top-notch songwriting. By the same logic, Peterson's work deserves similar recognition, and an album like The Far Country makes me thankful that he's been picked up by Fervent Records after being dropped by Essential—even if the album is mostly about death.

But the overall tone of The Far Country is more joyful than melancholic, focusing on how we cope with death in light of our hope of heaven through Christ. Peterson's sixth album stems from a simple-but-profound quote by Meister Eckhart: "God is at home. We are in the far country." The marvelous title track builds on this, drawing from Scripture to express our universal longing for heaven. And while we've heard plenty of "this is not my home" songs, this one is far more insightful than most, while also allowing Peterson to stray from his usual folk pop—it's more a contemporary pop/rock arrangement akin to Rich Mullins and (if you can believe it) the piano-based styles of Ben Folds or Coldplay.

"Lay Me Down" also evokes Mullins ("Elijah") and the bright acoustic pop of Caedmon's Call, while pondering the subject of where one's body will lay and how it relates to the eternal. "The Queen of Iowa" recalls the folksy storytelling of Mullins, here offering a personal anecdote about Peterson (and producer/keyboardist Ben Shive) playing in the living room of a fan dying of AIDS. Dark as that may sound, it's an example of a Christian facing death with dignity, love, and hope: "I could see my illusions scatter/Every time she drew a breath/I could see the heart of the matter/The heart is a matter of life and death." Then there's "More," co-written by folk-great Pierce Pettis and reminding us that death is only the beginning of true life. Because the song is more observational than narrative, it'll make a great reassurance at funerals.

Peterson has a love for fantasy and uses it to carry his themes further. Tolkien fans will recognize "The Havens Gray" as a reference to the setting at the end of The Lord of the Rings where characters sail off to the story's equivalent of heaven. Similarly, Peterson and Shive use it as a metaphor for the ache and longing we have for communion with God in heaven. Meanwhile, drawing heavily on imagery from The Chronicles of Narnia, "Little Boy Heart Alive" is an ode to Peterson's two little boys, reminding us to live life with child-like wonder. (When some record label inevitably makes an album of songs inspired by John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, this one would make a nice addition.)

The Far Country isn't solely focused on life's ultimate journey. There's also a new rendition of "Mystery of Mercy," an amazing song that testifies to God's grace by offering familiar examples from the Bible. Peterson originally co-wrote it for Caedmon's Call's Back Home, but hopefully this more upbeat pop/rock version will appeal to Christian radio for more people to hear. "Mountains on the Ocean Floor" starts with Peterson's uncle, who's serving time in prison for drug addiction, to convey our need for grace. The title is a metaphor for our failings lurking under the surface, and while it's a good song with a strong alt-folk vibe, it sounds a little too much like other songs Peterson has recorded. And that's really the only fault on The Far Country. Though there isn't a bad track on the album, the last 3-4 songs begin to bleed together, too reminiscent of Peterson's past work.

Still, the overall sound is strong, thanks to a bevy of musical talent that includes Andrew Osenga (Caedmon's Call), Jill Phillips, and Shive, who deserves more production work based on this album. You can sense an effort from everyone involved to be real, not rote, with the music. And Peterson excels with relatable lyrics grounded in both Scripture and everyday life, thus communicating timeless truths, rather than merely reciting them. I've often compared Peterson to Mullins, but that's beginning to seem a little unfair after five years. Peterson has since proven himself a capable songwriter in his own right, to the point where we should be comparing others to him, instead of the other way around.

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