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THE FAR COUNTRY (2005)
The Far Country - Click to view! Five years and four major-label studio releases into his career, most listeners recognize Andrew Peterson, if they recognize him at all, only by way of his debut single "Nothing to Say" (it's the one about Arizona and Rich Mullins on the radio). While such a situation is hardly unique, it bears noting that Peterson's relative anonymity comes on the heels of a debut that shifted over 80,000 units, Top 5 Albums of 2001 honors from CCM for its follow-up, Clear to Venus, a Dove Award nomination for "Family Man" from his third record, Love & Thunder, and national tours with everyone from Nichole Nordeman to Caedmon's Call. Those familiar with Peterson's back catalog, on the other hand, are virtually unanimous in their praise of his simple, folksy musical aesthetic, profoundly thought-provoking lyrics and unpretentious, often self-deprecating demeanor. Many have even gone as far as to hail him the logical successor to the late Mullins, one of Christian music's most deeply talented and universally esteemed performers.

Such a comparison is arguably a valid one, as much of Peterson's latest outing, The Far Country, calls Mullins distinctly to mind. The sparkling hammered dulcimer which opens "Mystery of Mercy" instantly invokes "Calling Out Your Name" from Mullins' groundbreaking The World As Best As I Can Remember It, Vol. 1 project. The playful, narrative style of "Lay Me Down," which tells of Peterson's climbing maple trees and riding on combine harvesters as a child in Illinois harks back to Mullins' boyhood memories of listening to the old men praying at his boyhood Indiana church in "Boy Like Me/Man Like You." And Peterson's extraction of underlying divine principles from everyday life in songs like "Little Boy Heart Alive" would surely have made the salt-of-the-earth philosopher in Mullins exceedingly proud.

Continued comparisons to Mullins' work notwithstanding, a more fitting point of reference for Peterson's new effort might be, say, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, given its prevailing themes of loss and death. "Queen of Iowa" is a magnificently sublime account of a living room concert Peterson performed for a woman dying of AIDS. The driving piano-based pop of the title track offers an interesting contrast to its wistful look at mankind's unredeemed state ("In the fast cash and the news flash / In the sin-fraught cities of the dead / We ache for what is lost"). "The Havens Grey" is a somber midtempo lament, a la R.E.M.'s "Find the River," about bidding one's loved ones farewell, while the heartrending "More" ("All our lives we till the ground / Until we lay our sorrows down / And watch the sky for rain") ends the disc with Peterson tapping out an abruptly ending heartbeat on the top of his guitar.

In fairness, some of Country's songs meander in search of a concrete hook or melody line while others run together a bit, making it hard to recall certain tracks once the album is over. That said, Peterson and his cohorts are impeccable musicians blessed with an instrumental subtlety and grace that becomes more apparent with each listen. Likewise, this, like each of Peterson's previous projects, rewards multiple spins with a fuller appreciation of its thematic depth and scope. Indeed, even if Peterson merely recited its lyrics sheets, Far Country would still be a more than worthwhile undertaking thanks to his keen insight into human behavior and skillful appropriation of Biblical truths. Slightly less imposing than earlier works like Carried Along and Love & Thunder, The Far Country is nonetheless an engaging, beautifully crafted set of songs from one of Christian music's most talented and literate artists.
- Bert Gangl
September 2005
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