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Review of Shawn McDonald
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Review of Shawn McDonald's New Album
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Shawn McDonald delivers a masterful collection of new songs on his second outing, a mix of Damien Rice honesty with near-bottomless spiritual depth.

Do you long to connect with someone? Maybe it's a spouse, or a sibling, or one of your children. Maybe it's someone who has become more and more disconnected.

As Christians, connecting is such an important aspect of our spiritual lives, a deep theology. Without fellowship, we'd languish in a perpetual state of longing. Arms outstretched, we'd yearn to share the wonderful truths we inhabit. Yet, there is one Connection that can breathe new life into rasping lungs and dry bones. This latter relationship is the one that Shawn McDonald chooses to write about on his second release, Ripen. There's an acoustic energy that reminds me of Shane & Shane, a slowly emanating joy that crawls inside your skin like a warm blanket on cold feet. Easily one of the best records of the year so far, Ripen should bridge farther into the secular realm than your average Christian rock release. Whether anyone will "get it" is uncertain.

Too bad, because there's a lot to get. Musically, there are fine ornamental underpinnings, like a tea cupboard with etchings too precise to grasp on first look. I listened to "Pour Out" three or four times just to take in the amazing distorted guitar effects, warbling something in the background, and the aching acoustic strums. McDonald – who has a less subtle background involving drugs and a party-til-you-drop lifestyle – is always right there in the center of the music singing about searching for, moving toward, seeking out, and finding a Savior. It's a mixture of Bebo Norman on his slowest, darkest days with the fine songcraft of Damien Rice and the inspirational textures of Chris Rice. Interestingly, you could unpack these songs, add drums, electric guitar, a synth, and Rebecca St. James on background vocals and it would work well on Christian radio. I hear Chris Rice a little on "Home" and "Reason," but only after he's spent a long day traveling over a rough road and without any Nashville producers present. Really, isn't the best production the kind where you hardly know it's there? Ripen is just good songs, with light instrumental touches. For me to say it's better than Sufjan Stevens is saying a whole lot.

Most impressively, Ripen is good throughout. You have to be ready for it: the fire needs to be stoked and flaming, and you had better have some strong coffee nearby to keep you awake. But coffeehouse music is not necessarily boring. I love one of the later songs "Salvation" with its molasses-like chord progression. "Perfectly Done," probably the best song here, tells a story about what God expects from a perfect creation. Ironically, it's a perfection that only He can provide, because we're pretty much rotten eggs otherwise. Ripen is serious headphone music that ripens the more you listen. It may permeate outside of Chritiandom, and I hope it does, but McDonald is definitely singing about topics that can only take root if you ponder them. So, happy pondering!

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