Reviewed by Bert Gangl
Beauty Will Rise by Steven Curtis Chapman
"Chapman opens the depths of his soul, harnesses the grace and strength that have waited within, and reflects them back to God and his audience."
At first blush, the image of Steven Curtis Chapman standing, arms upraised, on a barren mountainside overlooking the ruins of a village ravaged by natural disaster might seem an odd – not to mention decidedly less than photogenic – choice to grace the front cover of his latest release. Those familiar with Chapman's most recent comings and goings, though, will quickly realize that perhaps no other picture sums up the last year and a half of his life more accurately or succinctly.
On May 12, 2008, Chapman and his wife were wrapping up a four-week visit to China when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the country's Sichuan province, killing nearly 70,000 people and leaving 4.8 million homeless. Although the Chapmans were far enough from ground zero not to even feel the quake, they soon suffered a crushing setback of their own less than two weeks later, when their youngest daughter, Maria, herself a Chinese adoptee, was killed in a tragic automobile accident at their home in Nashville. Chapman returned to China in July of this year to attend the grand opening of an orphanage named for his daughter, and performed a concert in the Sichuan province, where the cover photo was taken.
Not surprisingly, the better portion of the new project mirrors the inevitable bleakness Chapman and his family have experienced in the wake of his daughter's passing. While many an singer places their faster, more rousing material at the beginning of their records, the somber, nearly percussion-free, album opener, "Heaven is the Face," is not so much a case of an performer leaping out of the starting blocks and declaring, "Here I am!" as it is a snapshot of an artist deep in the midst of contemplation and recollection, completely oblivious to the outside world. In the title track's lack of a pronounced verse/chorus/verse structure , one can almost hear the sound of a soul meandering in search of an emotional anchor point amidst its anguish. And the absence of layers of studio gloss on the stripped-back, acoustic guitar-based "Just Have to Wait" and "God Is It True (Trust Me)" seems only fitting in light of those songs' bleak, emotionally raw, subject matter.
Given its lo-fi, largely understated nature, the musical portion of Beauty can tend to fade into the background at times, coming across as almost an afterthought. Of course, one can only imagine that, this time out, Chapman was far less intent on finding the perfect hook and melody than he was on simply chronicling his own sadness and uncertainty. To that end, he has succeeded brilliantly. "February 20," which details young Maria's salvation just before her death (As she prayed, "Jesus, Can I come live with You?"/ We could never have imagined/ She'd be going there so soon), is a spellbinding mixture of temporal loss and eternal triumph. The likewise engrossing "Our God Is In Control" and "I Will Trust You" (I don't even want to breathe right now/ All I want to do is close my eyes/ You're all I've got) find Chapman piercing his unrelenting heartache with encouraging slivers of hope. Most impressive of all is the masterfully-penned "Questions" (God/ How could You be so good and strong/ And make a world that can be so painful), which stands out as arguably the most unflinchingly honest song Chapman has ever committed to disc.
Given that they were penned in the wake of such unimaginable grief, one can only guess that the songs on Beauty came to Chapman without much conscious thought or deliberation. And it is arguably this direct, unaffected approach that ultimately renders the album his most gripping outing to date. At first glance, it would seem almost ironic that a release whose subject matter is so closely tied to one specific event should, at the same time, be Chapman’s most universally accessible. But, even those who haven’t experienced the agony of losing a child have surely, at one point or another, longed violently for an end to their pain, regardless of its source.
Unlike so many of his previous
records, which seemed to be composed with one eye inclined to those who
would eventually hear them, the new project
finds Chapman aiming, not for the entertainment of those who will ultimately
hear it, but simply for his own catharsis and eventual healing. While it
isn't his most instrumentally engaging effort, it is, without question, his
most unique and absorbing – a lyrical masterwork through which Chapman
opens the depths of his soul, harnesses the grace and strength that have
waited within, and reflects them back to God and his audience. Suffice it
to say that both parties are certain to be well pleased with the end result.
Bert Gangl was formally introduced to the wonderful world of Christian music by his baby brother as the two were winding their way through Western Tennessee in the family automobile. Ever intent on proving that not all Christian artists were knock-offs of their mainstream counterparts, the younger Gangl duly inserted his newly-purchased copy of White Heart's Freedom into the waiting car tape player and the rest, as they say, is history. In the twenty years that have transpired since that time, Bert has amassed a sizeable CCM album collection of his own and has gone on to write reviews for a range of music-related sites including ChristRock , The Phantom Tollbooth, inReview and The All-Music Guide. He currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife and daughter.