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December 21, 2007

’What a Heart Is Beating For’: Gain and loss

HeartMy fellow Chris Rice fans, you are so patient and kind. You really are. I promised you a review of What a Heart Is Beating For some four months ago, and aside from the occasional gentle, unobtrusive nudge, you've never complained.

I did want to take time to give the topic some serious thought, and around here we've got about as much time to sit and think seriously as we've got to take up spelunking. Still, four months was an excessively long time to make you wait, and I'm sorry. For those of you who haven't completely given up on me in disgust, here, finally, are a few thoughts.

Some Chris Rice albums knock me right off my feet (Amusing; Deep Enough to Dream). Others take a little longer to grow on me (Run the Earth, Watch the Sky). What a Heart Is Beating For fell into the latter category. Honestly, for a couple of days I wasn't sure what I thought of it. It wasn't until a scrap of melody and imagery -- for in Rice's music the two are usually inseparable -- sneaked up on me and started chasing me around all day ("like a swing set in a graveyard, like a bloom in the desert sands"), that I realized that this one was going to grow on me too.

Why did it take so long? Well, obviously, for those of you who've heard it, this album is a pretty big departure from his usual work. To use the usual term, it's a "crossover" of sorts. But I don't like using the usual term because it gives the wrong impression. It makes it sound like I think, "Oh, there goes another Christian artist watering down his work to go mainstream." And that's not really the case. I don't think counting references to Christ -- literally or figuratively -- accurately captures the spirit of an artist's work, or gives a fair picture of his faith for that matter. Besides, I don't like to pigeonhole artists, Christian or non-Christian, and I'm pretty sure most of them don't like to be pigeonholed either.

Here's what I do think: A large part of Rice's brilliance as a lyricist has always been his colorful, idiosyncratic, completely unique way of writing about God. With fewer of those songs -- though there are still quite a few here -- and more general love songs, his music gains something and loses something. He brings to the love songs an ardent spirit and poetic sensibility that, in my opinion, the modern-day love song -- or heck, the modern-day lover -- is desperately in need of, and makes an important contribution in that regard. It's hard to listen to a song like the title song without thinking that this is exactly what our commitment-phobic age needs to hear.

At the same time, I have an unshakeable feeling that with the partial shift in subject matter, some of the sharpness and freshness of the imagery has been diluted. Only on a Chris Rice album, for instance, could a phrase like "be yourself" be so jarring, because up until now, we've been spoiled rotten by his once total inability to think in clichés. Is it possible for him to retain that sharpness and freshness only when writing about God? It sounds like an odd theory, and songs like "Lemonade" and my all-time Rice favorite, "The Breakfast Table," would seem to give the lie to it, but the effect of this album as a whole is that there just might be something to it.

Not that there aren't compensations. Musically at least, Rice's work is stronger than ever. I'm particularly partial to the bouncy melodies of "So Much for My Sad Song" and "Here Come Those Eyes" and the soft harmonies of "Love Is Gonna Break Through." And I must say I like his trumpet work! Several of the songs, like "Pardon My Dust" and "You Don't Have to Yell," have something really significant to say, and they say it -- which is perhaps even more significant -- in a gracious way. (I had flinched when I first heard that "You Don't Have to Yell" was Rice's first "protest song"; what a tremendous relief to discover that it was the kind of thoughtful, well-reasoned, grace-filled "protest song" that I should have known Chris Rice would come up with.) And all the songs are suffused with Rice's trademark sense of wonder, hope, and deep faith. The message of "Love Is Gonna Break Through" -- have you noticed that I really really like that one yet? -- will be with me for a very long time.

All of which is why, after all, What a Heart Is Beating For did grow on me. And whatever direction Rice takes from here, I expect the One who has always inspired his best work will still be at the heart of his music and his thinking. I just hope that, whatever the subject matter, he'll once more start reaching for new lyrical heights.

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Gina wrote: "around here we've got about as much time to sit and think seriously as we've got to take up spelunking."

Wow, fooled me; if this isn't serious thinking, what happens when you guys are rested?!?!

And you could always make a cave of all those unread books... :-)

Buon Natale.


Hooray! It's finally here! No complaints from me however about the four month lag. I think you're right on. It has always struck me that Chris Rice's music needs to be thought about, chewed on, considered to be fully appreciated. And, I think this album is no exception. What about "Sneaking into Heaven"? My favorite line is "We all get to heaven under someone else's name." That one got me when I finally "heard" it on the fourth or fifth listen!

Gina Dalfonzo

Oh yes, I liked that one too!

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