20. Lead Me On – Amy Grant
LEAD ME ON (1988)
Several years ago, when CCM Magazine created a list of the Top 100 albums in CCM history, it was this album, Amy Grant’s “Lead Me On” that was chosen as the number one album of all time.
One of the reasons this blog has garnered the following it has is because this is not a CCM Magazine list. The magazine always had a fond fascination and appreciation for Amy Grant that exceeded her artist achievement. I have always believed that CCM wanted to be recognized outside of its little circle of industry insiders and fans, and hoped to make inroads into the mainstream music and publishing world. In other words, they were a lot like Christian artists of the same era.
Since Amy was the great success story in the mainstream music market, CCM Magazine (and others) hitched their wagon to Grant’s popularity and continued to have her featured on the cover and within its pages. They knew where the bread was buttered and made no bones about it.
Those of us who lived on the fringes of CCM were constantly frustrated with the magazine’s and industry’s ignoring of artists like DA, Jon Gibson, David Edwards, Adam Again, Steve Taylor and a host of other “outer circle” artists who were creating amazing music while being virtually ignored. This created a real resentment in the hearts of many fans (myself included) against the like of Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant the made it virtually impossible for many to admit when the artist in question actually created great art.
And though I never could allow myself to believe “Lead me On” deserved its obsessive over-recognition, there is no way of denying it is Grant’s finest moment and one of the best 20 albums ever created by the Christian Music industry. No other album in the Top 20 will be considered as “mainstream CCM” as this one. So, considering this fact, it quite possibly could be the best pure CCM album of all time.
No matter where one falls on the spectrum of Christian music, even the most ardent critic of the genre recognizes this album for what it is; a nearly perfect record capturing a great artist at her very best.
Sandwiched between a pasty, plastic pop album (Unguarded) and a brilliant example of a pop masterpiece (Heart in Motion), “Lead Me On” is brilliant and relentless rock and pop album of a gifted songwriter surrounding herself with brilliant musicians and creating a work of art. Infusing rock, country, folk and even “world music” influences, the album remains the most challenging and cohesive album of Grant’s career.
A few years ago Grant reassembled the original tour band and took to the road to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this album. It was a phenomenal concert and it was a real joy to see her with the likes of Warren Ham, Chris Rodriguez and Chris Eaton supporting her. It also showed just how well these songs have held up over time. More personal than any previous release and possible second only to “Behind These Eyes” in emotional impact, the album struck a chord with many and sold for many years, though never attaining the commercial success one assumes it has. It never reached the Top 50 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
The album starts with the testimonial song, “1974.” The song also introduces this newer sound, that was a far cry from the programmed, sequenced leopard skin predecessor. A slight countrified groove with amazing instrumentation that pulls the listener along the road rather than driving him. This song, like the whole album, is more about mood than melody and it simply draws one in.
On a side note it should be noted that there are a lot of “longer songs” for a pop album. many reach over 5 minutes and did not set a tone for radio ready by any stretch. This is most obvious on the 5-minute plus title track. I don’t recall if I have ever mentioned drummer Keith Edwards’ name in any previous reviews,a nd if not, that is a true oversight. he is amazing and is one of the reasons this album sounds so raw and real. This is most noticeable on this song. Where the previous song looks to the past a details Grant’s simple conversion, “Lead Me On” is more about the future and the common feeling of not knowing what the future but maintaining a faith in the God who does know. By the way, Tommy Funderburk steals the freakin’ show on backing vocals.
Another 5-minute song follows, with the calypso tinged “Shadows.” Clearly ripping off Daniel Amos’ “Doppelganger” theme (sarcasm), the song deals with the constant struggle the christian has with his/her “old man” and the constant pull to sin or walk away from the true path. The song reminds the listener of the need to watch out over our actions and thoughts.
The one marginal hit (huge hit on CCM radio) was the first single, “Saved By Love.” In a country-like storytelling vein, the song present a heroine whose life was saved by love, both earthly and heavenly. The song shows the dual nature of the album as it addresses both the spiritual and physical matters of faith, family and love. This put many “CCM fans” off as it contains and more honest and, at time, darker look at life.
The 5-minute string continues with “Faithless Heart.” The song continues the dig deeper into the less mainstream CCM friendly theme of an honest and transparent lyrical theme. Struggles of doubt and faithlessness are not the themes most associated with Grant before this release. There appeared to be no real personal turmoil in the public eye at the time, so many were shocked by the darker themes. Others, though, warmly received the more honest seeking approach to real life Christian experience.
My favorite remains, “What About the Love.” Both lyrically and musically the song was a major leap for Grant. There is a tinge of anger and frustration with Christendom and its response to the needy and acceptance of sin within its ranks. But the worldly evils are also not immune to Grant’s attack in the question the title asks. It is a slower and darker melody and never actually gets to a real chorus for quite some time as it builds and builds throughout. Once Grant and band reach the halfway point, the song really drives home the musical punch.
Things mellow out considerable with “If These Walls Could Speak.” Wonderful acoustic piano performance by Shane Keister accompanies a longing and lonely sounding melody about legacy and family heritage as well as marital relationship in turmoil. I often imagine a video in which Grant returns to the house of her youth at after a funeral. All the memories of lost opportunities to tell a loved one that they are truly loved and the longing desire to make an emotional connection. It remains one of Grant’s most emotionally evocative songs. I have often wondered if this was a hint regarding the future emotional upheaval she would experience. Really, a brilliant performance.
Edward’s powerful drumming kicks of the more rambunctious and adventurous “All Right.” This song is all about mood and emotion. The groove in the chorus is perfect and Grant is more soulful here than just about any other moment caught on tape. Here again we also get to experience Tommy Funderburk is one of the greatest vocalists on the planet as he is featured with a who’s who choir behind Grant.
“Wait for the Healing” is the song that sold the album to many of my more skeptical friends. Swirling, whirling and rocking throughout. Clearly borrowing the guitar riff from U2, the song possesses the best chorus of any song the album. It is more musical standout than lyrical one.
Two songs in a row are the ones I always forget about the song. The first is “Sure Enough.” It’s not that it’s a bad song, it just feels so dramatically out of place. the sequenced and annoying synthesized keyboard parts just make is sound much too “Unguarded” for this album. Perhaps a different arrangement would have helped. Sounds too much like a Gino Vannelli singing a Peter Cetera song.
The following song, “If You Have to Go Away,” which appears to be about then husband Gary Chapman, is just a really forgettable pop song, that sound too much like one created for the sole purposes of garnering radio airplay. In hindsight the song’s content is really uncomfortable.
But the two previous songs are totally forgiven once “Say Once More” begins. A brilliant and lovely love song, the song is a real treasure. The wonderful sing-songy melody just wraps and envelopes with no breaks between verse chorus and verse. It also possesses Grant’s finest vocals on a ballad. Rich and real, the song is just plain hypnotic and Grant sound authentic and emotional. The bridge is utter perfection. I simply cannot express just how well crafted a song it is.
Grant would soon record an obvious pop album, but a good one at that, with “Heart in Motion” that would catapult into the mainstream music world like no other Christian artist before or after, and guarantee several more years of gracing the cover of CCM Magazine, but it would be “Lead Me On” that would remain her lasting artistic triumph.