Where Grace and Gravity Collide | Posted October 21, 2012 Staff Reviewer
In Bebo Norman’s music, I’ve come to expect one thing: honesty. I appreciate his willingness to lay bare his vulnerabilities, and in his music I’ve often found assurance and comfort in knowing I’m not alone. On his latest effort, Lights of Distant Cities, it’s no surprise to find that Bebo’s done it again -- unapologetically written an album full of raw desperation. But don’t be deceived. Though he started writing steeped in hopelessness and spiritual darkness, he never ceased searching and praying. Eventually, God’s light broke through and hope found him, and Bebo finished with a set of songs that chronicle his personal journey through darkness into light and that serve as a beacon of encouragement for others.
Title track “Lights of Distant Cities” draws the listener in as Bebo speaks of the allure of the mystery and beauty of God. The song calls out, pulling us forward, beckoning like lights in the distance, and keeps us in pursuit of the hope that is ultimately found in Christ.
“The Broken” continues the pull. From the opening bars of hammered dulcimer, musically it’s Bebo like you’ve never heard him before. For this project he worked alongside producers Gabe Scott and Ben Shive in a sort of vacuum, unconcerned with expectations or commercial success, but intent on creating music that sounded like the emotions the songs expressed. “The Broken” is a desperate plea for healing of a broken world. Unable to connect emotionally to his faith, Bebo asks God to rekindle the flame: “Can we fall in love again for the first time? / We wanna fall in love again just like the first time.” Though the music contains dark tones, there is a buoyancy and brightness threaded throughout that hints of renewal to come.
“At the End of Me” is at once a candid confession of inadequacy and a call for recovery. While there have been other songs about looking outside oneself, you’ll not find one more sincere or expressive than here: “Such a long time / Such an uphill climb just to finally get over myself / ... / So tell all my secrets / And open my scars / Break me to pieces / Cause at the end of me / at the end of me / That’s where You start.”
Acoustic, minor key number “Daylight Breaking” feels like classic Bebo. Again he yearns for his faith to be reinvigorated, recalling the passion and freedom he felt in his youthful first blush of faith. Though only a memory, he “can still see the daylight breaking now.”
The album gains a full head of steam with “World Gone Dark.” Energetic and percussive, the track gets a robust, full-band treatment. Though continually reaching and coming up empty, Bebo doesn’t lose heart: “I’m gonna lay my laboring open wide / Take this bird of burden, set it free and let it fly / Cause in a world gone dark / ... / I’m gonna feel a spark.” He sums up his divine lesson in trust with the poetic line, “The beauty of an empty soul is nothing left but letting go.”
Standout, “Sing of Your Glory,” is a tale of contrasts that recalls the Psalms of David. We see Bebo shaky and demoralized, yet clinging desperately to a truth he knows is real but cannot feel. With everything around him falling apart, still he sings in praise: “Hold tight the sacred ties that bind my weary soul / O God of light, of ancient skies, I sing it out...You’re alive.”
On “Collide,” Bebo speaks of his persistent building of temporal kingdoms. We all share this tendency toward personal sufficiency and a worldly, God-less salvation. Luckily, as the song demonstrates, even when we run from Him, God pursues us and claims us as His own.
In the lovely “Wine From Water,” Bebo sings about patiently waiting out a marital silence born from argument, trusting God that “there are miracles still unseen.”
Story song “Outside Her Window Was the World” is a tale of redemption fueled by grace. Trapped inside her own pain, the protagonist cries to be freed. Once saved, she realizes that, though she couldn’t see it, the hope she found was there all along.
A similar understanding takes place in “Just a Glimpse.” Not unlike “Daylight Breaking,” Bebo needs God to show up in a visible way. In His love, he longs to be “lost enough to find again the light that steals away the dark.”
The album ends with “Go With You,” a gorgeous love song written from the perspective of a committed couple finding peace in forging a path together into the unknown. Appropriately, the song begins at night and ends at hopeful daybreak.
Fear not, Bebo fans. Though sonically different, Lights of Distant Cities is unmistakably Bebo Norman. He is not experimenting with his lyrics, only painting his sound with additional brush strokes. The songs give voice to Bebo’s transition from spiritual desperation to recovery. His experience proves that even in impenetrable darkness, though we cannot see the Light, we need to continue to seek God. For if we do, our Shepherd will pierce the night like a searchlight until His lost lamb is found. Lights of Distant Cities ranks among Bebo’s best work and is a must-have fall release.