When I first listened to the latest album by John Elefante, I couldn't stop. I happened to be listening to it on the same day as the release of some other music that I loved and very much wanted to listen to that song over and over, but I just could not bring myself to leave The Amazing Grace. Some of you will say, "Well, that's just because Steve is a huge Kansas fan." Don't get me wrong, I like Kansas, but I'm not the fanatic that a couple of my friends are. I think my buddies Mark and Paul would be willing to move to that state just because it shares its name with the iconic band. For me this was not a trip down memory lane or some fanboy exercise. I was simply hooked by the music.
Track By Track
Track 1: City of Grace
Coming in at 4:11, this silky smooth opening piece of ear candy feels like a 2-minute number. You are so caught up in the lush sounds that you can't believe it is coming to an end. It opens with a voiceover of Matthew 6:19ff, which is followed by the sound of clanking chains that expands into a rich tapestry of choral backing behind Elefante's lead. Vocals soar over crisp rhythm and elegant keyboards, and you know at once this is an album for which you need to sit up and take notice.
Track 2: Stronger Now
What is this? A wall of sound attacks you as the second track opens, and you begin to wonder if this is going to be a heavy metal album, but the brightness of the sound takes you back to the light and happy days of the '80s and even the '70s. The guitar solo is a tasty piece of work, but it is Elefante's vocals again that carry the day. He understands phrasing and dynamics, and by the time the song ends, you wonder how four minutes and thirty-nine seconds could have elapsed so quickly.
Track 3: The Amazing Grace
A moody, slightly darker feel greets you with this slower temp track. Forgive me, but there is too much forced emotion in much contemporary music. With the title track on this album, you get plenty of emotion, but it is authentic, crafted by musical and lyrical composition with actual skill and thought behind it. The words are firmly grounded in the truth of Scripture and truly lift the spirit of the listeners rather than prompt them toward the excessive self-focus we encounter in other Christian music.
Track 4: Time Machine
A delightful bit of piano noodling opens the fourth song for about eighteen seconds, which is just long enough to lull you into thinking this song will follow the musical footprint of its predecessor. And then come the drums, the guitars, and the whole nine yards. Without losing its smoothness, Elefante's voice reaches its grittiest here, which is appropriate given the searing guitar toward the middle of the song. There is simply so much going on with this number. It is soft, it is hard, it subtle, it is bold, it is old school, it is futuristic. This song demonstrates what true songwriting is about. It is about exploration and discovery and the weaving together of a tapestry of sound to create an experience.
Track 5: Won't Fade Away
Seven seconds of bright piano that would have worked well in the soundtrack to an '80s sitcom or other pop song start this number, but that is all you get before the vocals seize you and demand, "I need something to believe in!" After a short vocal we sink into lush strings, and when the vocals return, you are hooked, eager to see what directions this song will take. It turns out that this is a miniature rock opera with enough distinct movements, again both vocally and instrumentally, that you realize why this album will be a favorite with true music lovers, but not with those who want their music to sound as if it rolled off an assembly line.
Track 6: Not Alone
Elegance caresses your ears at the start of "Not Alone," a wistful song that has echoes of The Beatles, '70s ballads, and The Eagles, all somehow wrapped in futuristic otherworldliness. From the Christian nature of the album thus far, it is easy to hear the lyrics as words from God to each of His beloved children, yet this could play equally well as a secular love song. Starting at the 4:54 mark, we are treated to a subtle guitar solo, which is something you don't often think about. Most guitar solos tend to the flamboyant, even bombastic, and dominate the piece. Here, the solo almost takes a back seat, only gradually moving to the front of the aural stage toward the end.
Track 7: Falling Into Place
A Beatlesesque sound characterizes the vocals in this fairly straightforward pop piece. While not my favorite track on the album, it still demonstrates the layers of sound and composition that characterized an early era of music while still bearing the futuristic feel of all these songs.
Track 8: We Will Be Fine
I like to shut my eyes when doing a close listening to an album, and "We Will Be Fine" is a song that caused them to fly open. Lush keyboards and drums kick things off only to be followed up by a vocal sound that, at least for me, conjures images of New York in the '70s and '80s. There is a Foreigner feel here, which, to draw from the song's title, will always be fine with me. This is another song that is not explicitly Christian in its lyrics, but with the Christian undercurrent of the whole album, it helps to see the lyrics through that lens. A thoroughly enjoyable guitar song toward the end draws the song to a fade out close and helps makes this one of my faves.
Track 9: Little Brown Book
As with "Stronger Now," the intro to "Little Brown Book" has you scratching your head. Just when you may have thought you had figured out this album, Elefante gives us a hard-driving opening with a swaggering vocal for a song about...the Bible. Now, he never once uses the word "Bible," but that is clearly the subject of this little number with the absolutely infectious beat. This one had me bopping my head and reaching for my air guitar!
Track 10: And When I'm Gone
This is a straight-up piano ballad. If you are of any age past forty, expect a bit of mistiness to cloud your eyes. This is a song that would make a tear-jerking trio along with "Leader of the Band" by Dan Fogelberg and "The Living Years" by Mike + The Mechanics. Yet, for all its heart-tugging emotion, this is also a song that, like the other songs on this album, prompt you to think and consider the more important matters of life.
Track 11: City of Grace (Long Version)
The opening track of the same name that opens this album runs 4:11, and this final song clocks in at 6:15, but don't let the title fool you. This is not merely an extended version of the earlier number, but rather a different song of the same name. There is an entirely new opening, both musically and lyrically, and when the song eventually does get to the point where it touches on opening track, you experience a sense of connection that brings the album to satisfying conclusion.
There are certainly songs to enjoy as one-offs, or singles, if you will, but this is a concept album best savored in its entirety with the highest quality headphones you can find. If you don't have time to drink in the whole thing at once, then take it in a couple of long draughts. This is an album for musicians and music lovers, and if you are one, you will be well pleased with John Elefante's The Amazing Grace.