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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Writing on the Wall

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Aug
Writing on the Wall
Sounds like … the acoustic folk-pop of Shawn Colvin, Sara Groves,Susan Ashton, Amy Grant, and Jonatha BrookeAt a Glance … Jill's third album will make you thankful she was given another chance with another record label, thanks to insightful and inspiring songwriting

It's not uncommon for artists to switch record labels when their contract is up or when a record label is forced to close shop. It is, however, surprising when a new artist is squeezed out after one album, only to maintain popularity as an independent artist and signed to another recording contract. Such is the case with Jill Phillips, a folk-pop artist from Chesapeake, Virginia, with a sound that resembles Shawn Colvin, Sara Groves, Susan Ashton, early Amy Grant, and Jonatha Brooke.

Many thought Jill would break big with her self-titled 1999 debut on Word. Instead, the Belmont University graduate left the label one year later and in 2001 released the highly acclaimed indie album, God and Money. She has also been featured on a number of compilations in the meantime. Now at home with up-and-coming Fervent Records, Jill releases Writing on the Wall, which is at least as promising as her previous two efforts.

For me, one of the great mysteries of Christian music is why it is primarily the folk-pop artists who approach songwriting with depth and intelligence. Why doesn't introspection and thoughtfulness translate into straightforward pop and rock like it does in mainstream music? Well, here is another strong songwriter able to merge subjects of faith with everyday feelings and themes without resorting to clichés. With her husband and writing partner Andy Gullahorn, an independent artist in his own right, Jill has never been afraid to write on the tough and complex issues of faith. This is also true of Writing on the Wall.

The lead single, "Wrecking Ball," is a prime example. The song offers a familiar message of God using tragedy to shape us, but it is handled with fresh insight, exemplifying the theme of finding strength in weakness and discovering what matters most:"Piece together these little mysteries/It isn't hard to see the writing on the wall/Triumph and tragedy, only God can be/Both the builder and the wrecking ball." Interestingly, it was written before the personal struggles the young couple wrestled with in the last couple years. This not only shows that Jill and Andy are a bit prophetic in their writing, but that they write on matters anyone can relate to.

Such is the case throughout the album, which was recorded with a number of other well-known guest artists who are a part of the Nashville Christian folk-pop community: Bebo Norman, Andrew Peterson, Matt Slocum (Sixpence None the Richer), Stephen Mason (Jars of Clay), and Phil Madeira. The stunning "Even Still" explores the subject of death with confidence and beauty, since we have the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ. "Leave It Up to You" is an honest confessional that wrestles with our inability to forgive ourselves and heal. Jill extols the virtue of "wisdom" in a country-flavored duet with Andrew Peterson, inspired by the Proverbs. With a beautiful piano and string arrangement, "Sacred" reminds us to be patient while enduring suffering for the sake of faith: "Don't let your only dream be taken and cashed in for everything you've hated."

Everything generally works on Writing on the Wall. "Hanging On" perhaps sounds slightly out of place with the programmed rhythm and effects. Jill's fans may also puzzle over the inclusion of the simple-yet-profound Pierce Pettis song "God Believes in You," a cover that appeared on her last album. This particular version is slightly more produced, not simply performed on acoustic guitar, and features a harmony by Bebo Norman.

To the faithful fans of Jill Phillips and those well aware of her music, I would say she is offering more of the same, but this could possibly be her best yet. Writing on the Wall is a little less polished than her debut and a little less raw than God and Money. It is also similar in sound and quality to the recent debut from Jill Paquette, whose album I recommend as just marginally better—fans of one should definitely consider the other.

In the last four years, I unintentionally overlooked this Jill's work, assuming her career had run its course in a flash. Between the smartly delivered interview she gave us at Gospel Music Week 2003 and this intelligently inspiring acoustic pop release, I found myself wanting to revisit her previous releases, not just to be well researched, but simply out of a thirst for more from Jill Phillips, who now seems here to stay.