A treasured album is like an old friend. Any longtime music listener has them: those well-worn albums you come back to, not every day but every so often, when you need them. They become more than just a collection of songs. They’re a tangible set of memories. They might evoke a particular place and time when they first connected with you in such a personal way. You turn back to them to revisit those memories, or to seek the wisdom in the songs, just like calling a friend. And each time you say, “We should do this more often.”
These are the hopes a good artist imbues into each song—that a unique and sometimes very personal story or feeling will somehow connect to people, transcending the firsthand experiences that built the song. That connection is unpredictable, but when it happens, it can forge a special bond. That’s when a song or album becomes not just a means for entertainment or a tool for ministry, but a very real part of someone’s story.
In this new series, we’ll be honoring some of these treasured albums. We’ll invite artists and writers to share the music that occupies a special place in their story, and hopefully introduce you to some gems you might have missed along the way.
So, for starters, allow me to introduce you to my dear friend, Clear to Venus by Andrew Peterson. It was his second major-label studio album, and this year it will celebrate its twentieth birthday. (Just look at that baby face on the cover!)
Venus is a “road album,” not uncommon when new artists must tour relentlessly while satisfying label obligations and momentum. Many of its songs were written in exotic places like the Super 8 Motel in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The bulk of the band at that time was Andrew, his wife Jamie on background vocals, and Gabe Scott on BGVs, guitars, accordion, hammered dulcimer, etc.
“No More Faith” opens the album with a cheeky declaration: “This is not another song about the mountains.” It was a gutsy call for a sophomore album to call out its predecessor’s biggest single, “Nothing to Say,” about a drive through the American west where “the mountains sing your glory, hallelujah.” But the rest of the opening line takes the cheek away and couches the album in a new reality. This is not another song about the mountains, “except about how hard they are to move.” Oh.
The lyrical mastery that sees Peterson give such care and attention to every single word was already abundant, and while this early album is never naïve, there is a youthful ebullience that makes me smile. Mark Geil
“So now faith, hope, and love abide these three,” says First Corinthians, “but the greatest of these is love.” I had always thought that a pleasant sentiment, especially for a chapter about love, but then Andrew—like he would so many times in the decades hence—revealed a deeper truth from an ancient story. “I say faith is a burden. It’s a weight to bear,” he sang. That was a brave bit of honesty for early-2000s CCM, and I’m sure it gave his label pause, but that was the line that made me an Andrew Peterson fan for life. “Nothing to Say” was a wonderful praise song. Its follow-up single “The Chasing Song” was clever and confessional. But “No More Faith” was revelatory. That’s why the greatest of these is love! I finally realized, longing for the day when we won’t need faith and hope any more. Clear to Venus has the unfortunate distinction of being released on 9/11/2001, but “No More Faith” somehow spoke into the events of that day with deep empathy.
(This is also the song that established AP as a brilliant bridge writer—see also “The Reckoning” and “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone.”)
Second track “Mary Picked the Roses” has a unique history. Rich Mullins left the lyrics to this song behind when he died tragically in 1997. Andrew, who has borne the “heir apparent to Mullins” mantle his entire career, was given the lyrics to set to music. I’ve often imagined the weight of that task: to do the song justice, but not be imitative, and to add to so great a legacy. Andrew and Gabe wrote a folksy delight livened by Dan Tyminski’s mandolin. “Isn’t it Love” follows and carries the same bounce over another deep truth. I’ll admit that I missed the gravity of the third verse until I heard the slow version (you can find it on After All These Years), and felt the guilt and thanksgiving in Andrew’s voice as he sang, “And still you died for me.”
Clear to Venus makes the personal “old friend” connection for me on two particular songs. “Let Me Sing” is a quiet marvel, a beautifully structured song set to piano and cello. It is remarkable that Andrew wrote this masterpiece in 1996, when he was just 21 years old. When I lapse into a routine of life that leaves layers of mundane crust on my heart, this is the prayer I sing to be made new. It’s my favorite song from the entire AP catalog.
And the title track that’s not exactly a title track, “Venus,” is my favorite road song. I’m a sucker for road songs—think “Load Out” or “Turn the Page”—because they often find the artist at their most human state. I’ve never been on tour, but it’s clear that it can wear you down. These are songs that speak to the sacrifice of a calling, and the mix of joy and fulfillment against a longing to just sleep in your own bed for once. I think of this song every time I pass a Hampton Inn, and I can hear the emotions of every artist who has ever given up their time to play their songs for me when Andrew sings, “Still, it isn’t home.”
Every song on this album is worthy of mention. Track down the story of Andrew and Eric Peters’ competing coin songs. Delight in the AP-Randall Goodgame story-song “Alaska or Bust.” Don’t miss the Mary Chapin Carpenter cover “Why Walk When You Can Fly.” And there’s even a hidden CD bonus track, because in 2001, hidden CD bonus tracks were the equivalent to Marvel’s post-credits scenes. “Land of the Free” has a clunky line or two, but its heart is in the right place.
Clear to Venus is a remarkable work. The lyrical mastery that sees Peterson give such care and attention to every single word was already abundant, and while this early album is never naïve, there is a youthful ebullience that makes me smile. I pull it off the shelf more than any other AP album, and I let it come alongside me for the memories, the comfort, and the truth it always brings.