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The Same Old Struggles
Artist: Matt Allison
Label: UPsideDOWN Records
Time: 10 tracks/35:30 min.

Matt Allison has achieved a degree of fame in his native South Africa. In just two years Allison and his band mates from the folk/pop group Four Days Notice, were embraced by fans in Cape Town. The exposure and release of an EP led to a few tracks earning airplay on radio scattered across the country and even more fans. Now, carrying a sterling debut solo album and solo career, Allison may be poised to penetrate markets in far away lands. Maybe Allisonís short tour of the U.S.A. this summer means weíll be hearing more from him on this side of the world. 

The Same Old Struggles plow some of the same ground that other acoustic singer/songwriters do. The sweet, steady acoustic guitar rhythm of modern day folk/pop is present. Still, Allison offers some uncharacteristic embellishments, trimmings that flavor and distinguish the project as a Matt Allison creation. Creating such an imprint in a debut effort is rare. Indeed, some artists last an entire career without venturing outside of the box. 

For instance, when was the last time you heard a real piano in a modern day recording? Granted, if we listen carefully to certain musical projects, we can often hear a supporting player pounding the keys. Yet, even in acoustic music, itís rare to hear an unplugged piano featured prominently. In The Same Old Struggles, whether out front or just part of the supporting instrumentation, we almost always sense that itís present. Itís different, but incredibly refreshing.

To illustrate, the second song called "Iím Okay" features a solo piano introduction which sounds like something lifted from a dusty old ragtime album. The song is a bittersweet composition about a guy that always seems to be a half-step away from a meaningful relationship:

Iím feeling a bit neglected
Iím always the one that gets rejected by the opposite sex
Hey, thatís me
Iíve tried flowers and chocolates
But I always end up right where I started
What am I doing wrong these days?
The music video in my mind shows a bewildered young man sitting alone in a smoky lounge, looking off in the distance, pondering the meaning of life. Given a different instrumental treatment, this might present an aura of foreboding doom and hopelessness. To the contrary, with the upbeat, perky piano treatment and semi-optimistic lyrics, we have the sense that even though this character is sad today, tomorrow will be better.

In fact, if there is a common theme that ties these songs together, it would be "hope." An album titled The Same Old Struggles might be the last place weíd expect to find nuggets of hope. Even so, in life itís often in the midst of extended periods of pain that we realize the limitations of our humanity. Life situations present issues which break us. As Christians, we are provided with a hope that brings strength and courage when we need it most. Allisonís writing indicates he understands that truth.

Even the saddest song on the album is tagged with the bright light of hope Ė though Allison begins the tune with lines of doubt and frustration:

Iíve heard the same old stories day after day
I find it hard to believe in anything that you have to say
These bruised and battered ears have had their share of fairytales
All they have left me is a bucket full of tears
A broken heart and an empty chest
The bridge succinctly summarizes the pain of the singer while providing verbiage for the album title:
It seems itís the same old struggles that keep pulling me down
Iím grappling with issues of my faith
In spite of this apparently hopeless scenario, the song ends on a note of realization and again - hope:
What you have left me is pail of hope
And a heart that is filled with grace
Sometimes all we know is that we hurt, we donít have all the answers, and yet still, we believe.
Matt Allisonís singing voice is comfortable and breezy. It has a pleasant timbre, relaxed, easy and unaffected. Itís a voice that never strains or stresses (except maybe in the last measure of "Iím Okay"), wearing well over an extended period. Iíve listened to _The Same Old Struggles_ for a few months now with a growing appreciation for Allisonís voice nearly every time I listen to the CD.

"Pour" explores an often unnoticed aspect of relational communication. Too often, we attempt to prescribe a solution to anotherís problem, without spending the sometimes difficult work of active listening. Too often, we are motivated by our desire to win a discussion or change someone, instead of by love. Even in evangelism, before laying the foundation of care and concern, we are prone to shove the four spiritual laws down somebodyís throat:

You say you know what Iím going through
I say you wouldnít even have a clue
You say you know the words I need to hear
I say please go away
Cause how can you say what I need to hear
When you have not taken the time to ask me how I feel
Like folk artists such as David Wilcox and Pierce Pettis, Allisonís lyrics arenít overtly Christian. In fact, a quick scan of the lyric insert shows not even one Jesus reference. Like Wilcox and Pettis though, Matt Allison is skilled at painting pictures full of truth and redemption without explicit Bible words. 

"A Better Place" profiles a female artist playing at "Peteís Old Bar," and while she sings, the audience doesnít completely understand what she is singing about. The last verse reveals her stories are really about what itís like to serve a King.

Interestingly enough, Allison told me that he often plays his music in venues that some Christians wouldnít approve of. He suggests that God can impact anybody, anywhere, at anytime and feels his ministry must boldly go wherever God leads, even if that means playing in a venue typically used for secular bands.

Matt Allison is a good lyricist. In time, he has the flair and poetic sensibility to be a truly great wordsmith along the lines of an Andrew Peterson, David Wilcox, Rich Mullins, or Mark Heard. He clearly shows intermittent flashes of heading in the direction of these amazing song craftsmen.

I do have one gripe. This CD is flat out too short. The cuts are concise and compact and thereís only ten of them. Maybe Allisonís strategy is to leave us wanting. If so, it worked. 

Musically, a couple of Allisonís songs come close to sounding too much alike. An artist that takes full responsibility for writing all of the songs on his albums is prone to repeating himself. That must be an ongoing challenge for all songwriters Ė to stay on a plane of creativity that avoids personal repetition or inadvertently snatching snippets of other songwriters handiwork. 

Yes, in the crowded world of Christian folk/pop, we need to squeeze together to make room for yet one more talented and thoughtful singer/songwriter. His name is Matt Allison and the name of his debut album is The Same Old Struggles. Iíll bet it would sound good in your CD player too.

Curt McLey 10/7/2002

   
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