Over the past few years, Sandra McCracken has focused her creative energy on worshipful acoustic pop projects in Psalms, God's Highway, and Steadfast (Live). These albums drew heavily from the Psalms and contained the wide array of emotions found in those sacred songs. Her latest, Songs from the Valley, began forming during Psalms and leans more into the darker side of life. Acoustic guitar and piano lead the music with sparse background instrumentation, giving the album a subdued, somber feel. This perfectly matches well with the lyrics, creating a sense of confusion, sorrow, supplication, hope, or ominous foreboding as the song sees fit.
The journey here is really through two valleys with a hill between them. "Fool's Gold" and "Reciprocate" open in the valley where the shadows are strongest and a relationship is failing. There's the dawning of this in "Fool's Gold" as McCracken sings, "The fog is coming clearer now/And I am waking up/The light brings out the shimmer/Of what is fool's gold and what is love." The next song furthers this sentiment, "Now I am awake/You could not reciprocate/My love." However, hope is present in these tracks, especially in the chorus of "Fool's Gold," "But if it is not okay/Then it is not the end."
Hope comes out even stronger in the middle section of Songs as McCracken comes upon a hill and rests in God's love for her. "Oh Gracious Light" is her call for help as she notes, "I have been walking, walking so long/In darkness." This call is answered in "Lover of My Soul" and "Kindness" where the former track expresses, "How You always know/What is best for me." The latter track, being the most joyful of the album, revels in God's kindness and the ways He carries her through the valley. It's no mistake that these three tunes are what the album hinges on as McCracken is placing her faith firmly on God no matter what the circumstances are around her.
However, the light is bookended by the darkness with "Parrot in Portugal" and "Letting Go" leading the listener back into the valley and returning to the broken relationship. "Parrot in Portugal" seems to extend an olive branch, "You can fly or you can stay/I'm holding out for you, my love." But "Letting Go" comes to the sad conclusion that coming from the valley may not bring victory. All is not lost, though, as McCracken resolves, "I will not let the darkness have the final cadence/So I descend holding the spotlight in the basement." Darkness may remain, but light still persists.
While Sandra McCracken takes us on a somber journey through the valley, it never becomes so bleak that it's too hard to listen. The light and shadows dance back and forth and you get an equal sense of both through the 30+ minutes of Songs. My only quibble is that, occasionally, McCracken's voice gets lost in the reverb and echo effects and some of the lines aren't clear. Aside from that minor critique, this is a wonderfully honest companion for anyone who finds themselves in the valley. The songs feel personal to McCracken and yet maintain just enough ambiguity for listeners to empathize with and make their own. Songs from the Valley is another effective offering from McCracken in a growing line of fine albums.
- Review date: 2/16/18, written by John Underdown of Jesusfreakhideout.com