Style: Lush acoustic pop; compare to Sarah McLaughlin, Shawn Colvin, Cindy Morgan
Top tracks: "Miracle," "Scientists in Japan," "Eyes on the Prize"
The tiny epiphanies that Sara Groves uses as the building blocks for her songs have served her well for ten years now, and Invisible Empires, her eleventh album, continues the tradition of closely-observed moments set to memorable pop melodies.
Her previous project—2009's Fireflies and Songs, CT's album of the year—dialed back the pop hitmaking approach in favor of stark, confessional songwriting and pensive, minimalist arrangements. It was Groves at her most vulnerable and introspective, and it showcased her undeniable talents as a songwriter. In contrast, producer Steve Hindalong (The Choir, Sixpence None the Richer) bathes the eleven lovely songs on Invisible Empires in strings and U2-like ethereal reverb and delay. The pop influences have returned in force.
But if the musical conception is more lushly orchestral, supremely melodic, and radio-ready, Groves' lyrical concerns remain finely focused and nuanced. "Eyes on the Prize" quotes the old civil rights spiritual of the same name, and serves as a touching reminder of the fearful price still paid by those who are enslaved by others, while "Scientists in Japan" contemplates a world where technological advances outstrip our ability to understand the impact of those advances on the human soul.
But these socially conscious songs are atypical. The majority of these songs showcase what Groves does best. She confesses her doubt, her weakness, her propensity to lose sight of what is most important in the midst of the banality and frenetic pace of life. And then she perfectly articulates the little epiphanies and reminders of truth that shake her from her lethargy and help her find her spiritual bearings.
Whether exploring the challenges and joys of marriage ("Miracle"), the conundrum of watching the wicked succeed while the righteous suffer ("Open My Hands"), or the societally-imposed rules that hold sway over women in our culture ("Finite"), Groves gives voice to both the struggle of living as a Christian and the unshakeable peace that comes from surrender and trust. These are the small, seemingly insignificant moments that comprise the warp and the woof of a human life touched by the divine, and they are as real as your life or mine. In Sara Groves' capable hands, they expand and fill to take in all our lives, and Invisible Empires is another musical triumph.
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