Can Gray hope to top his previous pair of critically-acclaimed efforts?
Given the fact that he'd been in the business for some twelve-plus years before ever cracking the Christian pop Top 40, it's not hard to see why Jason Gray was often referred to as Christian music's best-kept secret during the early part of his career. Of course, all that changed in a big way when his 2009 Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue album hit the streets and its second single, "More Like Falling In Love," elevated the Minnesota native to virtual household-name status. The follow-on effort, A Way to See in the Dark, was even more commercially successful, placing two singles into the Top 5 and gaining nearly universal critical praise.
Existing fans will be pleased to find out that entries such as "Not Right Now" ("I know some day/ I know somehow/ I'll be okay/ But not right now") and "If You Want to Love Someone" ("If you want to love someone/ Search their soul for where it's broken/ Find the cracks and pour your heart in") find Gray's insight into the intricacies of the human condition as razor-sharp as ever. On the other side of the lyrical coin, "The Best Days" ("Oh, what a girl/ I could feel the world tremble/ Beneath us with my first kiss/ I aimed to make her mine/ But I missed") balances out such somber-minded material with a welcome sense of self-deprecating humor. And tracks like "Laugh Out Loud," "With Every Act of Love" and the title cut are imbued with the characteristically pleasant, slightly buoyant mid-tempo pop/rock that allowed Gray's previous works to resonate so deeply with so many listeners.
That being said, just as Dark took the quirky lyrics and infectious rhythms of Untrue and edged them ever so slightly closer to the center of the proverbial musical dial, the new record continues the migration toward the more familiar – and some might say, generic – pop/worship fare favored by perennial Top 20 dwellers such as MercyMe, Chris Tomlin and Casting Crowns. Likewise, the wording of songs like "Begin Again" ("It's never too late for a new start/ No matter how your life's been torn apart/ When you're at the end/ You can begin again"), like those of "Good to Be Alive" from Dark, lack the intuition and poignancy that made "More Like Falling in Love" and "Everything Sad Is Coming Untrue, Part 2" – both from the Everything Sad album – so downright riveting.
To his credit, the swirling, semi-psychedelic textures of "I Don't Know How" and slightly terse pop/rock groove of "Even This Will Be Made Beautiful" represent a certain artistic growth for Gray, given the fact that they arguably sound a good bit different from anything on the last two efforts. Similarly, the continued inching toward more radio-friendly material, in and of itself, is hardly a bad thing; ultimately coming down to a simple matter of listener preference. But, while nothing on Final Word seems destined to irreparably tarnish Gray's reputation as one of Christian music's most intelligent and talented performers, it's still hard not to wish for a larger helping of the musical and lyrical genius that rendered his last pair of projects so absolutely, and refreshingly, unique.
– Bert Gangl
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