It’s hard to know how to talk about this record. I played an early mix for a friend and when the song faded he asked, “What’s this song about? To you, I mean.” Now, anyone who knows me can testify to the fact that of the few virtues I may possess, keeping my trap shut isn’t one of them. I’ve probably gotten in more messes because of my mouth than for any other reason. But the question stumped me. I stammered for a moment and finally replied, “I don’t really have much to add to what the song just said.” This wasn’t me being facetious (though my friends will also attest that I’m remarkably gifted at facetiousness). I truly couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t come across as trite or redundant. My first thought was to answer his question by pressing play and having him listen again, but luckily I’ve learned in my 41 years that my first thought is seldom the most gracious. As we listened to the rest of the songs I stood there with my head down, fidgeting with the front of my shirt, hoping he wouldn’t ask me what each song meant.
For perhaps the first time in my career I’ve come to understand a little of Flannery O’Connor’s approach to her writing. Someone once asked her what one of her stories meant and her wonderfully snarky answer went something like, “Well, if I could tell you I wouldn’t have written the story.” Stories have their own way of speaking to us, of getting to the heart of things better than any explanation could. The best work they do in our hearts is invisible and sometimes inexpressible, especially to the person telling the story. Art is one way of trying to make sense of the great mystery of our lives. It’s a way of assimilating, with our tiny little brains, the vast amount of information we encounter as we’re bustled forward through time. Not to belabor the point, but it’s like this: art isn’t always about untying the knots, about solving mysteries, rather it’s like looking at the knot and maybe—just maybe—seeing that it’s doing more than tangling things up; maybe it’s holding something together.
When I started this album with my old friend Gabe Scott, a man I’ve made music with for almost twenty years (longer than any other human on earth) I showed up at his studio on Music Row with exactly one song, “The Dark Before the Dawn.” It ended up being the opening track. I honestly couldn’t imagine what this album would sound like, what stories it would tell, because there truly wasn’t anything to go on other than our friendship, his talent, and the hope that, by God’s grace, I would find the right things to say. It was scary. On one of the first days in the studio I was sitting on the couch where I would spend a lot of time in the coming months, looking at him blankly. I had nothing. No song to offer, no music to build on. He didn’t seem too bothered. “Pick a key,” he said. I squirmed on the couch. “Huh?” “Pick a key.” “I don’t’ know. E flat?” “Good key,” Gabe said as he spun around in his chair, grabbed a guitar, applied a capo to the fourth fret, then started dinking around. By the end of the day we had built a pretty cool sounding track. Just music. Just sounds and ethereal vocals and a drum loop.
I drove home that night listening to it on my phone, humming phrases and searching for the melody that would lead me into the song, like poking around a hedge to find a place to crawl through. That will give you a decent picture of the way these songs came into being. Little pieces of music, lines that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, slowly growing like seedlings into plants that we hoped would bear some fruit. Since I hadn’t been songwriting much—I spent last year furiously writing a 500 page book—I had no choice but to look around at my life, at what’s going on right now, right this second. No epic thematic vision, no arsenal of song ideas, nothing. Just the string of my life and a long series of knots that keep tripping me up.
It is what it is. That’s why I don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t have enough perspective on The Dark Before the Dawn to make much sense of it yet, sort of like standing too close to a painting and seeing only blobs of color. But I can tell you this: the last full-length album, Light for the Lost Boy, came out of what I guess was a midlife crisis. It’s a collection of songs that ended up being a precursor to some massive changes in my life, and when I sing those songs now it’s as plain as day that God was preparing me for a season of confusion and quite a bit of pain. The songs on that record lead the listener through some pretty dark places, like the boy on the cover, walking through a foggy wood without knowing if he’d make it out alive. That doesn’t mean the album isn’t hopeful. I think it might be the most hopeful record I’ve ever made, by virtue of the despair that haunts the edges of it. The Burning Edge of Dawn is about hope, too, but it’s also about something else: joy. That little kid on the cover of the last album survived the night and stepped out of the forest at the moment the sun finally broke the horizon. From where he’s standing he can still see the shadowy trees behind him, still remember how afraid he was. He knows he has a long way to go, but he can’t deny the beautiful truth that the sun always rises. The light always wins, sooner or later.
Let me be completely honest with you. Sometimes I’m sick of music. I’m sick of the road. I miss my home and my family. That boyish thrill of being in a different city every night is long gone. It’s been twenty years since I first started doing concerts, and I’m no longer surprised when people tell me I look tired—I always look tired. But, as some wise farmer somewhere surely said, nothing worth doing is ever easy. When I was a young man I heard a call as clear as day, and that call led me here, to a life of writing stories and singing songs, doing my small part to proclaim the Kingdom of God—both its presence and its coming consummation—and at no time do I remember hearing a promise that following that call would be easy. Yesterday I listened to the final mixes of this record from start to finish and felt a rush of gratitude and renewal of spirit. For two months I was able to make music—music for goodness sake!—with one of my dearest friends. I was forced, by the fact that I have a mortgage payment and a label deadline, to make an album, which is to say I was forced to stop and look around at the place God has brought me to. I see a lovely wife and three sweet children. I see a little house on the side of a hill and a garden out back. I see a church, and the communion of the saints, and a world that is brimming with too much beauty to ignore. I also see those painful mysteries, those dark trees, and plenty of sorrow—more than I’d like—but none of that changes for a second what I was called to all those years ago. I have no real choice but to look at my life and tell about what I see, to whomever will listen. I hope you will. And I hope you hear echoes not just of your story in these songs, but God’s.
The last song on the record is called “The Sower’s Song.” My old friend Ben Shive had written the music, I think for T.V. or film placement, and said I was welcome to use it. I drove around for a month listening to the music and trying to imagine what the lyrics might be. One afternoon I was thinking about my garden, about how miraculous it is that those tiny, dead-looking seeds actually produce plants, which actually produce food—food that actually keeps us alive. It’s a crazy thought. I happened to read Isaiah 55, which is a beautiful passage about the fact that God will bring about his purposes, will fulfill his promises, no matter how bleak things may seem, and Isaiah describes God as a sort of holy gardener. He’s always growing something good, always working towards those ends. The whole second half of the song is from Isaiah, beginning with, “As the rain and the snow fall down from the sky and they water the earth and they bring forth life, giving seed to the sower and bread for the hunger, so shall the word of the Lord be with a sound like thunder. And it will not return—it will not return void. We shall be led in peace and go out with joy.” God’s word will not return void. It will bear fruit. We shall be led in peace. Nothing can change that bright, glorious truth. The light always wins. That is the end of the story, however dark the forest may be.
After I wrote the back half of the song I had to figure out the first part. I opened my computer and my email dinged with the arrival of a daily devotional that I never read. But that day I skimmed it, and it was based on John 15, where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” There it was again: God is a gardener. A sower of seeds. His word comes to us like rain on the soil, and by his grace all the tilling, weeding, and waiting ends in joy. This album is the result of looking hard at a lot of painful stuff and arriving at the conclusion that when God the gardener tears open the earth, he’s doing it in order to bring about something beautiful. If you want the joy of the harvest, you first have to plant the seeds; and anyone who’s planted seeds knows that the soil must be torn open. That’s how joy works. I know that now. I suppose that if my friend asked me again what The Burning Edge of Dawn was about, I’d know the answer.