Release Date: October 9th 2012
Reviewed by Joshua Andre
Jason Gray- Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy (Amazon mp3/iTunes)
“…My hope with these songs was to climb inside the Christmas narrative through the characters who lived it, trusting that if I told their stories as truthfully as I knew how, we might recognize ourselves in them…” Jason Gray has never ceased to astound me. With a speech ‘impediment’ throughout his whole life, this calm, bold and sometimes confronting singer-songwriter, who reminds me of Steven Curtis Chapman, Josh Wilson, and Nichole Nordeman lyrically, has stretched the boundaries of CCM music lyrically and musically with his poignant melodies with many different musical arrangements, as his ‘stutter’ has given him a different outlook on life, and a reason to sing of God’s goodness, and all He has done. On the back of his most successful 2011 album A Way To See In The Dark, Jason returns in 2012 with Christmas Stories: Repeat The Sounding Joy, with offerings and renditions of a few Christmas carols; yet the bulk of the album is littered with original tracks written by Jason, as well as songwriters Cason Cooley, Joel Hanson, Nichole Nordeman, Randall Goodgame, and Andy Gullahorn. Even though September and October is slightly too early to listen to Christmas music in my opinion; as I spun these 13 tracks of Jason’s over and over again, I instantly fell in love with the craftsmanship and the personal connection of these songs in relation to what each of the Bible characters around the time of the birth of Jesus must have been feeling. Trying to put himself into many people’s shoes, to grasp a handle over what they were thinking; Jason has masterfully handmade instant classics, and hopefully this ingenious album receives many Dove Award nominations!
Out of the 13 songs on this festive recording, four are classical common tracks, with two of these just over a minute each, as entrées to some of the newly recorded original songs. “O Come All Ye Faithful” serves as a prelude to “Christmas Is Coming” and is an instrumental eerie and captivating track played on the piano and strings; with a soft but ever present choir singing in the chorus to set the magical tone! “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” is another one minute tune, with Jason singing the first verse and the chorus simply on piano and strings, as I am able to soak in the words ‘…in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…’, and worship and thank God for sending his Son Jesus to earth 2000 + years ago! Track number #8 is “O Holy Night”, and is played in full; with a slowing down of the tempo in the verses and quickening in the chorus- this change up is very clever! One of my favourite Christmas carols ever, Jason does this rendition of the song justice, as we are met with a soft melodic acoustic, and intimate type track, with limited guitars, and heavy synth, keys and programming, an effect that I gladly welcome, as I am swept away with Jason’s powerful vocals as he sings ‘…Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born…’, a notion that is ever so true, yet all so impacting even today; that the night when Jesus was born was a significant night in history! Well done Jason for highlighting this fact so purposefully and relevantly. The album closer “Joy To The World” plays out like a 90’s Nintendo Super Mario game, through the synth, keys, violin, cello, synth bass, and other instruments, which is fun to listen to and dance as well. With an added chorus of ‘…joy, joy, the hope of every heart comes alive in Emmanuel…’, and an originally written bridge as well; this different interpretation of one of my favourite carols, is a great album closer, particular due to the subject matter and what Jason was trying to communicate through the themes of this unique track list- “…joy is not the absence of conflict or crisis; joy is the presence of God…the Christmas story reminds us that through all of the drama and crisis that we experience in The Story, and in our own story, it’s leading us to joy, and on the way we discover Emmanuel, God with us…”! What a wonderful reason to celebrate and to ‘…repeat the sounding joy…’!
9 out of 13 tracks being original are a fair chunk, however with Jason’s song-writing ability and honest emotional vocals; this storytelling of the Christmas narrative with several songs seen through the eyes of the key characters (Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, the innkeeper, Mary) is quite different, and is a breath of fresh air for me! “Christmas is Coming” is a happy-go-lucky upbeat track with hand claps and a myriad of instruments for good company as well, inclusive of the Greek bouzouki. As I dance to the cheerful melody, I also am captivated by Jason’s direct question and invitation in the chorus of ‘…Christmas is coming, will you be there?…’, a call to everyone, asking the reason why they celebrate Christmas, and if they will join him in rejoicing in Jesus’s birth! And this is a call I will happily say yes to, as I am reminded in the bridge that Christmas is a time for family and relationships, and the perfect time to share the Gospel, as the Christmas spirit makes everyone all the more ‘religious’, albeit only a little bit. “Rest” is the song of the innkeeper, the next original; and we are met with a guitar riff sounding like Michael W Smith’s song “Never Been Unloved”. Lyrically though, this track transports me to the scene of when Jesus was born and how the innkeeper must have felt, having not experienced or seen Jesus when other around him did- this song also reminds me of how some people today are too ‘busy’ to see and experience Jesus and are crying out ‘…I need somebody to rescue me, I need rest…’. As thought provoking as Jason deftly puts it ‘…So the innkeeper is just worn and ragged and desperate for rest. His inn is full. He’s going without sleep. He’s burnt out and angry about it. And there’s this sad irony because Jesus is our Sabbath rest. The rest that the innkeeper longs for has come to him, has knocked on his very door, but he’s unable at that moment to recognize and embrace it…’. Sometimes Jesus comes to us, but we are too tired or too worn out to see it. So, for me this song is a challenge to embrace life and rely on God in the hard times; and to slow down and rest in Him.
The classical but also reimagined “Ave Maria” is next as Jason explores Mary’s story, and as the verses and the chorus come into my ears (I have not listened to Ave Maria before, hence I am not sure which part is added by Jason!); we are given a sense of Mary utterly trusting in what the angel Gabriel said to her, and putting her life in God’s hands ‘…Held by the love you were holding, is this what it means to be blessed?…’. Reminding me lyrically of Francesca Battistelli’s “Be Born In Me”, this personal insight into Mary’s life is segued into and contrasted by Joseph’s heartfelt tale of “Forgiveness Is A Miracle”, which is the most revealing track on the album according to Jason, and was probably the hardest track to write. As I hear Jason’s softly spoken yet impacting words, especially in the chorus where he expresses that ‘…even in the best of men, it takes a miracle to save us…’; we get an insight into Joseph’s thoughts and rationale. It must not have been easy to forgive Mary, who at first impressions could have had an affair. If I were in Joseph’s position, prior to dreaming about the angel in my sleep, I would have felt betrayed, bitter, unworthy, and angry. But in the end, Joseph was a godly man, and forgave his wife, and this 5 minute poetic experience a glimpse of how we should be like- forgiving to our fellow brothers and sisters, as we show God’s love to them. “Gloria” starts off with cheerful whistles, and quickly becomes a pop radio friendly guitar based anthem. Based on the shepherds’ account of Jesus’s birth; this sounds almost like a traditional carol, and consists of a tag of “Angels We Have Heard on High” at the end of the lively and spirited toe tapper! I am also deeply encouraged as Jason tells of the shepherds’ enthusiasm as they proclaim the Good News everywhere, something that we should all strive to tell as well- this prophetic track reminding me of the Great Commission in Matthew, speaks of evangelism, and how we should sing of God’s goodness day and night. What a joyful fact that Jesus is alive, and we should all strive to be like the shepherds in our daily walk as we declare ‘…Gloria, Gloria! Now everything is going to change, Christ the Lord is born today…’!
“Easier” (based on the wisemen’s story) talks about the conflict residing in each one of us as we try to open up and give a gift of ourselves to Jesus; to surrender completely to Him and trust in His will. Surely it must be easier just to give material gifts to God, like the wisemen did, than to give our whole heart to Him. And like this acoustic ballad explores in the first chorus ‘…do I hide behind my offerings while you’re hoping for the heart of me? Am I the only gift that you long for me to give?…’; Jason explains that as people, it is in our culture to hold our cards close to our chest- “…Why wouldn’t we give our hearts? It’s because we’ve learned to hide. Because we’ve been hurt, we’ve been disappointed, we’ve been betrayed. It’s this worldly wisdom that our hurt has taught us that has made us old and jaded, reticent about bringing our heart to anyone…”. But God calls us to come, and just like the wise men who gave gifts, but more importantly gave their whole heart; I am constantly stirred to give my heart over to Jesus numerous times!
After the re-recording of “I Will Find A Way” (from A Way To See in the Dark), speaking about how Jesus will always find a way to bring his children to Him, and reveal Himself to every person on the planet; Jason’s son Gus takes the lead on “Christmas For Jesus”, a thought provoking 1 minute interlude between tracks, about the fact that we are the presents that Jesus ‘opens’ and adores, and the fact that He showers us with love every day should put a great big smile on our faces! “Children Again” is the last original track, co-written with and featuring Nichole Nordeman on backing vocals; which speaks about being innocent again and falling in love with Jesus, and the ease or perfect opportunity that this can occur around Christmastime when we think about how Jesus came to earth in a manger to save us all. A fitting last song prior to “Joy To The World”, I think I have found a strong contender for Christmas Album of the Year! What a magical tone to give me the chills, as we sing about ‘…a baby [who] can make us all children again…’
“…Though there is drama along the way, the story is always leading us deeper into a healing joy—a joy that isn’t the absence of conflict, but rather the presence of God. My prayer is that as you listen to these songs you will find yourself inside the Christmas story, where we gather around a manger to be taken again by the wonder that took the whole world by surprise…” As a songwriter and as a storyteller, I believe that Jason has executed his job with composure and professionalism; and with a kind of assurance that is commendable and praise worthy! I don’t see how Jason Gray could have equalled Third Day or BarlowGirl for my favourite Christmas album of all time, but this was certainly the case! And who’d have thought after there only being 4 traditional carols? Well done Jason, you have definitely shone this year as a writer. A Dove Award and critical acclaim for your efforts may not be that far away…
- O Come All Ye Faithful (1:16)
- Christmas Is Coming (3:42)
- O Little Town Of Bethlehem (1:02)
- Rest (The Song Of The Innkeeper) (3:41)
- Ave Maria (A Song For Mary) (4:21)
- Forgiveness Is A Miracle (A Song For Joseph)/Man Of Mercy (5:33)
- Gloria (The Song Of The Shepherds) (3:51)
- O Holy Night (3:56)
- Easier (The Song Of The Wiseman) (3:43)
- I Will Find A Way (The Song Of Emmanuel) (4:53)
- Christmas For Jesus (1:19)
- Children Again (3:54)
- Joy To The World (3:25)
Favourite Tracks: Christmas Is Coming, Forgiveness Is A Miracle, Gloria, O Holy Night, Easier, Children Again, Joy To The World