Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Bebo Norman’s songwriting since I first discovered it more than a decade ago via Napster after reading an insightful interview with the contemporary Christian songwriter. I was immediately won over by his detail-oriented songwriting, on “Deeper Still” and “The Hammer Holds” from Ten Thousand Days, which radiated the depth of his faith without resorting to beating listeners over the head with theology or empty praise. Since then, he’s proven to be Christian music’s most consistently underrated songwriters, putting out album after album of heartfelt music of intense honesty.
Nothing he’s done since Ten Thousand Days has resonated quite as much as the songs on his latest album, Lights of Distant Cities, out October 22nd on BEC Recordings. “Daylight Breaking” is his most stunning single track since “Deeper Still,” raw in its multi-sensory presentation of every detail. “I can still see the daylight breaking,” he sings of an experience of true earthly beauty, backed by a propulsive melody of interwoven guitar and bass. “At The End of Me” opens the album with a surprisingly radio-worthy example of his elemental songwriting: “I’m like a promise broken every time I open my mouth,” he sings. “Under the surface, sometimes I want to slip right out of my skin and tell all my secrets.” The theme building just below the surface is of terrestrial experiences juxtaposed against the heavenly. “Do you remember when I was young and knew everything about everything?” he asks, hinting that we have to get over that sense of knowing it all before we can come to grips with what true celestial beauty is.
The great thing about Lights of Distant Cities is how, while writing songs about real people living honest lives in search of Christ, Norman continues to subvert expectations from a pop music perspective. “Outside Her Window Was The World” channels Coldplay through Third Day to create a sound truly his own. The element which propels these songs beyond his peers is the ability Norman has of cutting right to the core lyrically as he chronicles the lives of his subjects. “Come on, come on, set fire — burn through the pain, set it on fire,” he sings of a woman trying to cover up a “broken piece of love as sharp as a razor blade,” mourning the loss of of everything in her life which has fallen apart, as she’s left with nothing but the world outside her window. No one else in contemporary Christian music comes even close to this level of mastery.
For long-time fans of Bebo Norman’s work, Lights of Distant Cities is a stunning masterpiece which reveals more and more upon repeated listens. Those who haven’t heard him before, likewise, will discover an album of intimate depth and raw beauty which transcends its genre to become a pop album about which all lovers of meaningful music can rejoice. It is his strongest work yet, managing to stand out even in a discography as solid as any contemporary Christian songwriter has produced. In other words, get ready: this album is soon destined to rule the space between your ears, as one of the best albums of 2012.