Guest review by Jerry Chapman
Everyone has their own rituals during the holidays, leading up to Christmas day. And I’m pretty cool with whatever it is you and yours do… with a few conditions. 1. You may not start until after Thanksgiving. Seems obvious, I know, but some of you need to be reminded. 2. You must watch the movie “Elf.” 3. You need to listen to Andrew Peterson’s “Behold the Lamb of God” at least 4 or 5 times. Those of you who’ve heard this album, you already know, right? Those of you who haven’t? I have good news for you: You’re about to discover your new favorite Christmas album.
So, what is this album all about? Well, let’s start with what it’s not about. It’s not about hymns of the season (which are assuredly mostly great). It’s not about sleighs, chestnuts, chimneys or even snow (also amazingly great things). It is about “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ.” I know this because I’ve listened to the album countless times. And also because it’s printed on the CD cover.
I’ve never really written an album review before (well… that’s not totally true. I wrote a review of Rush album “Signals” for my 8th grade school newspaper), so I’ve decided to give a simple play-by-play, beginning at the start and finishing at the end. Let’s do this thing.
“Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come” is the kind of folk-pop song that an artist would trade all of his/her other songs for. Atmospheric drums, crystal clear acoustic guitars – these are a hallmark of the entire record. And the lyrics? “Gather ’round, ye children, come / Listen to the old, old story / Of the power of Death undone / By an infant born of glory.” A bold way to start our story. All right, I’m in. I should mention that this album isn’t just a collection of songs; it sounds like reading a book. And the ringing chorus – “Sing out with joy for the brave little boy who was God, but he made himself nothing” – is something you’ll find yourself doing, throughout the entire album.
“Passover Us” takes us back to the story of Passover. “Wait, I thought you said this was a Christmas album.” Well, I did, but I also told you it was the story of the coming of Christ. That’s right. We’ve got us a Christian folk history lesson. This also mines the same folk-pop territory as the previous song. Andrew’s voice bears a resemblance to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips, and that influence can be found on several of the tunes (this one, especially). Tasty guitar and B3 organ, along with a stellar harmony arrangement, turn this three-chord song into way more than the sum of its parts.
“So Long, Moses” is the most interesting song on the record, musically speaking. Hard-panned, open-tuned acoustic guitars, great atmospheric electric guitars from Andrew Osenga, magnificent string arrangements (more on that later). Oh, and at the 2:20 mark, someone has the brilliant idea to add a section in 7/4 time (later to be reintroduced). Perhaps they were just trying to make it hard for church bands who want to cover the song (more on that later, also). Lyrically, the song is exactly what the title suggests. It is another lovely history lesson, with appearances from Moses, Joshua, Saul, David and, to close, Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus. Really breathtaking. Trust me on this one.
“Deliver Us” is a musical reading of Matthew 23:37, delivered by Derek Webb (a pretty unbelievable songwriter in his own right), accompanied only by Andrew’s acoustic guitar and the Glipwood Township Orchestra. Ben Shive, who apparently was just out of college when this was recorded, arranged all of the strings on this album. And they are just pitch perfect at every turn, never overtaking, but always serving the song. He is, perhaps, the album’s MVP.
Hmm… I suppose I lied at the beginning when I said there were no hymns on this album. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one you will almost surely be familiar with. But this instrumental arrangement (by Gabe Scott, who also plays acoustic guitar) offers a very fresh take on a vintage song. He’s joined by Marcus Myers (fiddle) & Kyle Reeder (mandolin) on a version that is bluegrass in nature, acrobatic in presentation. If your church decides to do this song (again, more on that later), you might want to make sure you have some highly advanced (and daring) musicians.
“Matthew’s Begats” is Matthew 1:1-16. That’s it, lyrically. Really. The lineage of Jesus. That’s the whole of it. Musically, it falls somewhere between bluegrass and early Indigo Girls. This song will make you smile. It might make you laugh. And, at 2:17, it gets in and gets out, a job well done. To sing it at your church, you’ll simply need an acoustic guitar and a great memory.
Oh, man. We’re getting close! He’s almost here. “It Came to Pass” might well be sub-titled “Joseph’s Song.” Beautiful acoustic guitars (with dobro and banjo), coupled with another lovely string arrangement help tell the story of the happy (or not) couple’s trip to Bethlehem. It’s stunning in its simplicity.
“Labor of Love” could well be sub-titled, you guessed it, “Mary’s Song.” Andrew Peterson said that he can’t imagine anyone other that Jill Phillips singing this (and that luckily, on all subsequent tours, he hasn’t). And she is indeed a gem. I wonder if they were tempted to add strings to this. They would have been lovely, no doubt, but would have completely changed the the song. The minimal instrumentation (acoustic guitar, dobro, lap steel, a single vocal harmony by Peterson) adds to the stark beauty of this song and this chapter in the story. If “Mary, Did You Know?” is your current Mary-themed slow-jam, that’s about to change.
“The Holly and the Ivy” is the album’s second instrumental. A quiet stunner, it uses the well-known melody as a launching pad for a not-quite-bluegrass, not-quite-Celtic mellow romp. That’s a bit of a contradiction, I understand. After you give it a listen, let me know how you would describe it.
You know the story, of course. And you know the song. But maybe not quite like this. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” boasts perhaps the prettiest melodies of the bunch. Go ahead and sing the “Hallelujah! Christ is born!” lines. Feels great, doesn’t it? And once again, Gabe Scott shines – this time on hammered dulcimer. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sandra McCracken’s lovely harmony vocal. And yet another great string arrangement, which leads us seamlessly into…
“Behold the Lamb of God,” who takes away our sin / the life and light of man. Wow. The lone piano-driven song on the album, this is just breathtaking, and clearly the linchpin of the entire song cycle. Andrew’s voice, while pleasant throughout this album (all of his albums, really), would likely not be described as big or even particularly strong. But here, he presents this song with such gravitas, such believability, you’d never want to hear anyone else sing it.
While this album doesn’t have an overture, it does include an “underture” (if I may borrow from The Who’s “Tommy”) in “The Theme of My Song/Reprise.” Over distant primal percussion, themes from all of the songs we’ve heard up to this point are woven together into a wonderful, hypnotic piece. That leads us directly into the reprise, which revisits the album’s opening number: “So rejoice, ye children, sing / And remember now His mercy / And sing out with joy for the brave little boy is our Savior / Son of God, Son of Man / Hallelujah!” This is also the part of the album where you might find yourself unwitting on your feet, singing along. You’ll also probably play it again from the start.
Yes, I realize that this album is 12 years old. I’m not going to say that it’s timeless. But I’m not going to say that it isn’t. I’m sure there are hundreds (thousands?) of Christmas albums coming out every year, but there will always be a handful that stand the test of time. The Carpenters, Relient K, John Denver with the Muppets and this one come to mind.
Throughout the review, I occasionally said, “if your church bands want to do any of these songs… .” Well, you should! And you could/should do all of them. You can download sheet music, backing tracks and even string scores. No matter what size your congregation, I honestly believe songs are worth playing and hearing. Check out more at Andrew Peterson’s website.
JERRY CHAPMAN lives in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, with his wife (Jennifer) and his two kids (Georgia and Matthew). He leads contemporary worship at Maple Springs United Methodist Church and Ardmore United Methodist Church, both in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He plays over 100 shows a year at bars, restaurants, festivals and coffee shops. He also runs a lot and constantly listens to music (when he’s not playing it).