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Style: Subtly programmed singer-songwriter acoustics; compare to Andrew Osenga, Jill Phillips, Andrew Peterson
Top tracks: "At the End of Me," "Collide," "Wine from Water"
Singer-songwriter Bebo Norman self-started a nationwide career in the mid-'90s with his acoustic vulnerabilities, wearing his heart on his guitar to the delight of spiritually sensitive Gen Xers searching for substance among the otherwise oft superficial scope of CCM's programmed pop landscape. And though already a recording and touring vet by the time he signed his first record deal, he became a commercial success selling hundreds of thousands of records, headlining tours, and topping radio charts.
But in every bestselling career, striking a balance between pleasing ever-changing consumer tastes and staying true to one's core—to what endeared the artist to an audience in the first place—is tricky business. And for Norman, a songwriter in the truest sense, the tightrope has been nearly impossible.
For Lights of Distant Cities, his eighth studio recording, Norman, on the eve of his fortieth birthday, recruited longtime friend and touring partner Gabe Scott to co-write the bulk of the album. The collaboration gives Norman's new material an engaging familiarity, covering his experiences and perspectives as a father, husband, and spiritual pilgrim with a fresh and honest take, begging the question why these two have never written together before. Pairing Scott's writing and playing prowess with the hip songwriter-sensitive programming-induced production of Ben Shive (Sara Groves, Andrew Peterson) enhances Lights lyrical transparency while naturally playing to Norman's commercial sensibilities.
For instance, a soiree of effects swarm "Broken," capturing Norman's doubting heart with a hammered dulcimer motif:"In the dark night / Is there a shelter or rescue light / Is there a fire burning up the plight / That plagues my shallow heart." Poignantly placed electric guitar chimes counter an enchanting acoustic guitar in the confessional of "Collide": "I've seen beauty in my hands / Kissed her mouth and watch her turn to sand / All these things and still I hold on tight / To the altars I keep building to the sky." And "At the End of Me" is a subtle build from ethereal programming to four-to-the-floor kick to a surprise snare entrance near the end of the second verse, all driving home its pleading verses with every musical shift: "So tell all my secrets / And open my scars / Break me to pieces / 'Cause at the end of me / That's where you start."
For longtime fans, Lights serves as a homecoming of sorts, to the song, to the lyric, to the heart behind a man who has lived nearly half his life musically testifying to an unchanging God. And for Norman the artist, these songs are a poignant journal from one who has wandered the desert a time or two, only to come home a bit wiser and truer to his craft than before.
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