Sounds like … a skillful mix of pop, rock, folk, and alternative that not only resembles Delirious, Matthew Sweet, Jars of Clay, Neil Finn, Downhere, and Elliot Smith, but also suggests what might have become of The Normals in time
At a glance … intelligent songwriting about regret and redemption, along with a good variety of sounds and styles, allow Andrew Osenga's considerable artistry to shine on this impressive sophomore solo effort
I keep a short list of artists in my head that I believe called it quits too soon. The Normals is one example, a band that started out pleasantly enough in 1998, but quickly showed signs of developing into smart and anthemic rock in step with U2, Jars of Clay, Coldplay, and Switchfoot. Unfortunately, after just three albums, the group retired in 2002 to pursue other endeavors, both personal and professional.
Front man Andrew Osenga carries the band's legacy, independently recording his solo debut Photographs in 2002 before stepping in as lead guitarist for Caedmon's Call while also keeping busy with studio work and production. Now maybe it's the kind of music he's recently gravitated toward, or perhaps it's due to the stripped down sound of Osenga's 2004 EP Souvenirs & Postcards, but I half expected the same folk/country on his second album, co-produced with Normals keyboardist Cooley. Instead, The Morning could pass as the follow-up to The Normals' final album, with production values that surpass most albums in Christian music today, and Osenga continuing to impress (even surprise) as a songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist.
Four of the album's tracks are brief mini-songs—"chapter" introductions and illustrations that add color while reflecting the album's recurring themes of regret and redemption. There's the desire for reassurance and support ("In Gym Class in High School"), the longing for order and peace ("Farmer's Wife"), remorse over mistakes of youth ("Just a Kid"), and confessions of sinful hypocrisy ("All the Wrong Reasons"). Though the album is called simply Morning, Osenga splits the disc into "Morning" and "Evening" sections. The distinction seems more stylistic than thematic—the Morning tracks are generally brighter and more upbeat, delving into more contemplative songs for the Evening's second half. This throws off the album's pacing ever so slightly, going from fast to slow, but the groupings still generally work.
"After the Garden" kicks things off with a killer guitar riff worthy of Switchfoot and The Normals; the song notes how the Fall marked the beginning of humanity's gravitation toward wrong instead of right. Similar to the dynamic pop/rock of U2 and Delirious, "White Dove" tries to grasp the simplicity of the gospel message—God is not only about justice, but also mercy and love. The equally catchy "Following the Blind" laments innocence lost and misplaced trust, while the fast-paced roots rock of "Santa Barbara" employs poetic storytelling about regret and redemption. After that, "Dance Away the City" provides a sweet Brit-pop styled love song for newlyweds about overcoming trials with love.
The latter half starts with "Marilyn," a softer alt-folk tune that mourns a reckless love from the past. "House of Mirrors," offering change through God's Word, features a more mature sound refined by guitar and dulcimer. And "Trying to Get This Right" contrasts with "Dance Away the City" as a song of contrition and reconciliation in a relationship.
The Morning concludes with a tone of optimism, starting with the beautiful "New Beginning," brightened by joyful percussion with a sound reminiscent of Rich Mullins or Paul Simon. It features some of Osenga's best lyricism as he reflects on straightening priorities and the hope of all things made new: "And I can feel a prayer rising, and I don't even know the words/Still the groaning is the postage, and it will not be returned/Though we're living in this rubble of our reckless plans and games/We are reaching for the promise that we will not stay the same." Then comes "Early in the Morning," a glorious finale that reminds us to revel in the gift of the moment and not take our time on earth for granted. Thus the album begins with uncertainty, and after the darkness of evening, ends with the hope of a new morning.
It's not entirely clear how much of this is autobiographical and how much is storytelling that serves the messages of regret and redemption, but that's generally beside the point. This is a marvelous effort for those who simply enjoy intelligent songwriting and a skillful variety of pop, rock, and folk. It's not often enough in Christian music that someone balances it all so well. Maybe The Normals were just ahead of their time, and maybe the front man needed such experience to get to this point, but The Morning demonstrates remarkable artistic growth and hopefully represents a new dawn for Osenga's career.
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