Often the most beautiful creations can spring from the darkest places, and in a career spanning over a decade, Bebo Norman has shown this truth well. He's carved out a niche in his genre with a melancholy folk style and transparent songs that speak from the tension of sadness and hope, and over the years his music has shifted and evolved, sometimes brimming with more upbeat positivity and exploring bigger, poppier sounds.
The increasing tendency toward slick pop sounds and radio-friendly songwriting left his self-titled 2008 record a disappointment, and maybe that's why this reviewer approached his latest project Ocean with both great hope for the better and a bit of fear. He's proven himself many times to be an excellent songwriter who digs into the dark broken places with an vulnerability that rarely shows in sunnier CCM anthems, and thankfully Ocean, while not musically groundbreaking, does bring back his signature lyricism. There's still plenty of pop to go around, but a number of these songs stand out for their return to a mellower style and sincere songwriting.
This doesn't mean to expect the indie acoustic approach of, say, Ten Thousand Days; Ocean is still a pop record at the core. Many of the songs are collaborations with producer Jason Ingram, whose signature radio pop touch is all over the album, yet the overall effect is mellower and more introspective, much like his 2006 record Between the Dreaming and the Coming True. Humming synths and a strong drum beat lead the way into "Everything I Hoped You'd Be," before his voice delivers a driving, rhythmic verse: "Take me to the desert / You will be the water / I will drink forever to fill my soul." It's still an upbeat pop tune, but in some parts it manages to be dreamy, somber, and almost dark at times.
There are a number of standout tracks on this album, and it's interesting to note that two of the best and rawest tracks, "Could You Ever Look at Me" and "The Middle," were written by Norman alone. Finding their base in his songwriting and simple acoustic guitar, they work as a refreshing nod to his folk roots. The former is a poetic love song, in which he asks, "Could you ever look at me / The way you look at the ocean? / All wounded in your smile, but holy and unriled." It concludes with a sad twist though, hoping she never does because "I was never meant to be the light of your world." "The Middle" is another high lyrical mark as he openly wrestles with loneliness and despair in a story that doesn't neatly wrap at the end: "I don't wanna run from this beautiful life I've been given / I'm not looking for freedom / Maybe just a little meaning here in the middle."
"God of My Everything" has the marks of another standard CCM worship hit, but the vertical, introspective nature of the lyrics keep the song from going too far in that direction. When he sings "God of my pain that no one else will ever see," there's no mistaking that he means it. "I Hope You See Us," co-written with Laura Story, begins as a plea to the world to see Jesus instead of the dark, faulty presentation His people all too often give, then twists at the end to re-direct the prayer to God: "I hope You forgive us."
A few minor stumbles find their way into the record and manage to keep it from greatness. "Here Goes" is a decent enough pop song, but compared with the poetry found elsewhere on the album, lines like "gotta reach for something / or you'll fall for anything" fall flat. And then there are songs like "Sing Over Me" and "Remember Us" that have some lovely lyrics on close listening, but lose their impact when mixed with bright, standard worship instrumentation. It's disappointing to hear the songwriter's work drowned in slick production to fit him in a Christian pop role. On a side note, it's also puzzling that there is a radio version of "God of My Everything" included. It's not too different from the original, so it seems like a redundant addition.
Though his last album was less-than-impressive, Ocean turns out to be a welcome return to form that has its share of good moments. It doesn't match up to the standards established with Between the Dreaming... or bring back the folksy storyteller warmth of his early work, but it is a nicely done pop record overall.
- Review date: 9/26/10, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com