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Album Review: The Burning Edge of Dawn

It’s fitting that Andrew Peterson’s latest, The Burning Edge of Dawn, is being released just as browning leaves lose their grip and fall through a gray sky to a chilling earth. If ever there was an album to get you through a cold winter and keep you focused on the promise of spring, this is it.

Don’t take that to mean that these are songs of trite encouragement. They are profoundly personal, sometimes despairing, and when you hear them you’ll want to nod your head in agreement and then go give AP a hug. They are psalms, really, written in the fear and loneliness of the cave but ever mindful of the Maker of both the cave and the light that pierces it.

Peterson’s albums continue to exist as masterclasses on songwriting, and there is in the critic a natural urge to dissect them and find the smallest brilliant detail like you’re panning for gold in the water trough behind the children’s museum. Oh, but there is gold to be found here! A descending piano line on “The Dark before the Dawn” hints at the brilliant backward phrasing to come (“the storm before the calm”). Conventional song structure is largely ignored, as not a single song follows the standard and predictable arrangement of verses and choruses and a bridge with a key change.

There are also plenty of Peterson’s trademark references to prior work, with mentions of Light for the Lost Boy, fields of green and gold, the “theme of my song,” and even a nod to Rich Mullins’ “The Color Green.” And speaking of Mullins, there’s an enchanting hammered dulcimer on “We Will Survive.”

And then there are lines that make anyone who’s ever put words to paper raise their hands in surrender because once again, in so few words, Peterson has gotten it just right. How does one capture the scriptural truth that trials produce perseverance and maturity? How does one convey the mystery of God’s use of suffering in our lives? Here’s how: “It’s only when the straight line breaks and heals a little crooked that you ever see the grace.” Or consider “Be Kind to Yourself,” a song, written for Peterson’s daughter, that supplants so many songs of similar theme with its wisdom, expressed in a paired triad: “How does it end if the war that you’re in is just you against you against you? You’ve gotta learn to love, learn to love, learn to love your enemies, too.”

Thoughtful sequencing lets the rain (an extended metaphor throughout the album) that symbolizes despair as one song closes become the life-giving nourishment that lets a flower push through the snow as the next song opens. The same rain is heard in the piano on “The Sower’s Song,” another epic AP album closer a la “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone?” Two minutes in, a full stop feels like the turning of the penultimate page of a book. A few more minutes later, an abrupt end is the clapping of the cover when the book is closed.

Yes, there is gold to spare, but in the dissecting a truth emerges: this is an album meant to be felt above all else. There is so much honesty, so much longing, and these are songs for the heart before the head. For an album with no pre-defined theme, the songs chart quite a river. It is sometimes raging and sometimes tranquil. There are moments when the destination cannot be seen, and we grasp for even a tenuous mooring. Ultimately, we arrive, and we see the Sower, and we understand.

The Burning Edge of Dawn is an album about a spring made more joyful because of a long, hard winter. It is plaintive and painful and hopeful and joyful, and it’s a gift for the pilgrim as the air grows cold.

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