Jason Gray  – A Way to See in the Dark
Release date: September 13, 2011

Jason Gray is tall and handsome. He has rock star hair. But he’s a bit of a conundrum.

Does he write modern folk or radio-friendly pop songs? One is not supposed to be able to do both.

Is he a brilliant communicator, lecturing on the likes of Frederick Buechner to scholarly audiences, or does he keep quiet, struggling with a speech handicap? One is certainly not supposed to be able to do both.

But there he is, standing in front of a folksy audience, a picture of contrasts. He’s the classic front man, playing the catchy hook from a song they all know from the radio – say, “More Like Falling in Love” or “I Am New” – and then he’s the troubadour delivering a delicate and poignant story-song about his Minnesota childhood set to a jangly acoustic guitar. He’s at once a picture of confidence (what with the aforementioned tallness and hairness) and vulnerability. These seemingly disparate qualities serve him well on his latest from Centricity Records, A Way to See in the Dark.

I suppose it’s that vulnerability that first caught my attention. In declaring (back in 2007) to All the Lovely Losers that they are the very embodiment of the beatitudes, Gray established himself as a champion of the underdog, but not in the conventional cheerleader sense the world would have us know. No, Gray considers our weakness a gift, because it is in weakness that we discover the sufficiency of our Savior. Consider the paradox that opens “The End of Me”: “It’s okay, this is just the end / Don’t be afraid, this is where it begins.”

Although Gray didn’t set out to write this new album with a particular theme in mind, a strong current underpins the songs. Surprisingly, it’s a recognition of an enemy: fear. Lyrical gems are scattered throughout like wildflowers in a forest, and they speak in the face of this enemy:

“In the loneliest places, when I can’t remember what grace is, tell me once again who I am to You.”

“…To bring my heart to every day, and run the risk of fearlessly loving without running away.”

“’I’m sorry, baby’ is what he should have said. But she wouldn’t listen even if he did. They’ll die without forgiveness soon, but no one wants to make a move. Fear is easy. Love is hard.”

These and other brilliant lyrics are set to strong beats throughout. Never one to shy away from a good 6/8 time signature, Gray mixes things up with syncopation, some nice snare drum rolls, an even a hint of Owl City synth. As always, his warm vocals are solid from start to finish. And one particular song gave me a pause of awe (and an audible gasp), made me stop and ponder, then listen two more times in a row. I haven’t done that in a long time.

Jason Ingram and Rusty Varenkamp again lend their production talents, and there’s a pop sheen to most of the tracks, along with a dose of Brandon Heath-esque handclaps. Fans of modern folk will find moments when the album feels a bit over-produced, but I suppose this makes it more accessible and radio-friendly. For example, “Good to be Alive”, sounds like not just Christian AC radio, but mainstream Top 40 radio. Great song and sound, but it’s a long way from Gray’s Acoustic Storytime.

A Way to See in the Dark should broaden Gray’s audience, and he’s certainly deserving. This is among the best work in Christian music today, and like its sometimes paradoxical creator, it manages to entertain us, make us think, and minister to our deepest needs, all at the same time.