[Editor’s note: Today is the day—as we walk into Easter weekend, through Good Friday and towards Sunday, we now have Resurrection Letters: Volume I to keep us company. Below is Mark Geil’s review of Andrew Peterson’s latest offering.
For all its brilliance, it could be said that the greatest moment of Andrew Peterson’s Resurrection Letters, Volume I occurs before the first note. The Prologue ends with the unresolved full stop of “God Rested.” The silence that follows has a certain density that comes from the despair of extinguished light, undergirded with just the right touch of tantalizing hope.
God made his chosen nation wait centuries between the last words of the Old Testament prophets and the incarnation of the Messiah. Finally, those generations spent wandering the fallow fields of silence found a thrill of hope. Their King had arrived.
But then things did not turn out as expected. “The man who said he was the Resurrection and the Life / Was lifeless on the ground.” What happened to that hope? What was God thinking? Four hundred years of waiting somehow ended in more silence.
I have mourned, and I have waited, and now I dare to believe what I've believed for so long: His heart beats. Mark Geil
We cannot know through firsthand experience what those three days were like. We cannot know why God chose to make his people wait, and wait, and wait again. But we must know the shadow, to know the passage of time and to prove that the sunshine exists.
Those few seconds between “God Rested” and “His Heart Beats” are hard-won. We know the Good News is coming, but we mourn with a fallen world. I have listened to those few seconds again and again, and I still get a shiver of joy when I hear that faintest bass drum that heralds a resurrected heart. Andrew’s low vocal register is the hum of electricity after a knife-switch is thrown. Never has a song taken me so viscerally inside the tomb, where stale air filled dead lungs. I have mourned, and I have waited, and now I dare to believe what I’ve believed for so long: His heart beats.
The story of the Resurrection Letters is well-known by now. Volume II was first, a decade ago, and took the form of songs more in response to the resurrection than actually about the resurrection. Surely it is easier to write the former than the latter. There’s a reason there are thousands of Christmas albums for every one Easter album. Consider the writing of “His Heart Beats,” and the challenge of constructing a song that captures the single most important moment in the history of eternity, establishes its significance, and redeems the silence that precedes it with fitting triumph. That’s more than a little pressure. No wonder it took a decade.
There are at least two essential reasons Prologue and Volume I are so effective. The first is the same reason Behold the Lamb of God is such a great Christmas album: not only does it capture a single event well, it informs that event with the historical and the contemporary. It tells of Abraham, and of the birth of Christ, and of my response to it, in a cohesive arc. Collectively, the Resurrection Letters do the same. Now that we have Volume I, “Hosea” on Volume II becomes a glorious song about the rescue mission of Christ. “Invisible God” sits in contrast to the visible presence that caused the eyewitnesses to declare they’d seen too much to deny the good news. And, perhaps most importantly, the songs find a way to include the listener in this grand context. The turn, from “His heart beats” to “my heart beats,” the invitation to gather around a table to remember and proclaim, and the chance to sing in response that, yes, “He is worthy” all signify the wonder that God lets us be a part of the Story.
Whether Andrew knew it or not, it seems that decade was spent in preparation for this album. 'Risen Indeed' could not communicate rebirth without the seedlings of 'The Sower's Song.' 'Rise Up' knows the full longing for the promised deliverance because of the winter of 'Come Back Soon.' Mark Geil
The second essential reason the album excels is this: Even without the profound subject matter, this would still be a wonderful album. Its musical diversity far exceeds typical singer-songwriter fare. The piano does most of the heavy lifting here, and it’s excellent. There are thematic allusions to “Fiddler on the Roof,” a (perhaps unintentional) name-drop of a brilliant Paul Simon album, and a remarkable lyrical reference to Harry Potter (well, maybe Harry Potter, but definitely 1 Corinthians 15:26). The harmonies of the Nashville Youth Choir and the doubled vocals of Andrew’s daughter Skye are so lovely and so well-placed. There is a programmed drum line with a hard, snapping snare that comes awfully close to making an Andrew Peterson song sound like a rap song. There’s even part of a song in 7/8 time, for Pete’s sake! I know of few artists who care so deeply about every note and every word of every song. The quality that results means the songs will not just hold up through the now-required annual Lenten listenings, they’ll crack open with new meaning each year.
In retrospect, the ten years it took to complete the Resurrection Letters were completely necessary. Whether Andrew knew it or not, it seems that decade was spent in preparation for this album. Ben Shive has grown so much as a producer, and on this work he has mastered his craft. The liturgy and communion fostered in the music and lyrics have been forged through gatherings like Hutchmoot, which did not exist way back then. And Andrew himself has known darkness, silence, and waiting. “Risen Indeed” could not communicate rebirth without the seedlings of “The Sower’s Song.” “Rise Up” knows the full longing for the promised deliverance because of the winter of “Come Back Soon.”
There is a reason God chose Bethlehem, and then Golgotha, and that particular moment in history. There is a reason the tomb held death for the longest three days ever known. There is a reason this music can now remind a desperate world that victory has come and victory is promised. Finally finished, the Resurrection Letters have arrived just in time.