Cathedrals represent an important part of the Christian canon. As highly visual representations of the church, these impressive edifices took hundreds of years to build, and they still stand as a reminder of the hard work and determination it took to build something grand in scale. Great art takes time to curate, and Tenth Avenue North knows. Much like a cathedral, TAN's efforts are ornate and large in scale, but also like a cathedral, they potentially try to do too much. Either way, it's a great analogy for TAN's fourth studio album.
Stylistically, Cathedrals feels like a natural follow-up to the production-heavy The Struggle, though it also mixes in some key elements from the lighter The Light Meet the Dark to make the record feel reasonably balanced. What's probably most noticeable, however, is Mike Donehey's vocal exertion this time around; every note feels higher than usual, and though he hits every single one without issue, the energy never really lets up. The "less is more" approach is used so infrequently that the closing track "All the Earth Is Holy Ground" feels like a breath of fresh air rather than a subdued grand finale. This isn't to say that the upbeat tracks are always detrimental, however; "Heavens Sound" and "Closer" are both polished in the important ways that keep the album dynamic.
The title track is truly meant to be the centerpiece for the album, however, which it mostly succeeds at being. Leading up to the song is the intro track "Iesu, Dulcis Memoria," featuring the stunning voice of Audrey Assad, and she lends quite a bit of credibility to the album's concept. Though the verses of "Cathedrals" seem to indicate a faster chorus than what listeners actually get, it's still a memorable track that features a convicting cry for God to serve an active role in our lives ("God, fill this space with joy, take temptation's place/we will taste and see you as you are").
There are some songs in the album, however, that have less than interesting melodies. For instance, "I Need You, I Love You, I Want You" never seems to deliver on its promise of a crescendo, resulting in what feels like four minutes of the same note. Similarly, "Stars In the Night," "The Spark," and "Stay" feel like boilerplate material, featuring undeveloped choruses without a satisfying hook. "We Won't Numb the Pain" is also oddly executed; it's a truth-filled track about the cowardice of hiding from problems, but the track gets bogged down by a distracting song structure, as if it's trying to replicate Switchfoot's rambunctious "Selling the News." These are the sorts of tracks that feel puzzling in the midst of other truly great material.
TAN has always been band to focus on truth-telling. That's half the battle in writing quality songs, but it's also the element that's kept their listeners faithful for the last several years. Additionally, they've proven to be deep theological thinkers, though this element only seems to bubble under the surface. Both of these traits are ubiquitous in the band's entire discography, and Cathedrals is little exception. While there are tracks that reach well into some introspective footing, they mostly stay accessible to an almost simplistic degree. "No Man Is An Island" is the perfect example of this type of songwriting; while the track's message is absolutely commendable as a reminder for Christians to be vulnerable with those around them, it's disappointing that it resorts a tired cliché for the hook to get this message across. In the end, it's typical songwriting for TAN, but it's what people have come to know and love.
At this point in Tenth Avenue North's career, an album such as Cathedrals feels unsurprising, but also genuine. It's a clear result of the hard work from over a decade of musicmaking experience, while also taking cues from what their fanbase most appreciates. Still, it's far from a flawless release with eleven tracks that are listenable, but often uneven, though they do improve upon repeated listens. It's inconsistent, but also entirely respectable, and it's this latter quality that makes for a landmark CCM release this fall.- Review date: 11/9/14, written by Roger Gelwicks of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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