Album Review :
Jonathan Allen Wright - Doorways & Tombstones
Every now and then, an artist comes along that makes it clear they mean business. These aren’t typically the arena-rockers or bombastic pop acts. Instead, like Elijah’s encounter with the Lord, these artists employ a certain mundane simplicity in their presentation that places the focus on the message before all else. Don’t mishear me – that’s not to say these artists don’t write incredible compositions with powerful production. But all of this is very much secondary to the lyrical focus. I can’t help but think of Former Ruins, Zambroa, Allen Odell, or Benjamin Daniel who all, to some degree, subvert the typical expectations of the singer-songwriter niche.
Well, it’s time to add another to the list.
You might not have heard a Christian artist who pairs lyrics about the perseverance of the saints with the musical backdrop of an 80s workout tape before, but Jonathan Allen Wright is here to change this. “We’re replaced your worship with an industry,” he laments on “An Industry”. It’s refreshing to hear artists who aren’t afraid to tackle meaningful topics in an age where I wish any artist claiming to a believer had some sort of statement of faith to back up the specific details of the Jesus they claim to follow. Wright deftly avoids being cynical or despondent, though.
Doorways & Tombstones is a sonic exploration of the intersection of doctrine and modern life. The songs oscillate between retro pop, piano ballads, and various iterations of “indie”. It’s not the typical singer-songwriter approach by any stretch, but there’s a certain rawness here in production and vocal delivery that keeps things from every feeling too commercial.
The album opens with an interesting pair of tracks. “The Beginning” speaks of God as beginning and end over a single guitar. There are sounds of an audience in the background before the song ends with a suggestion to “try one more”. “Reality Check” follows and in some ways serves a sonic reality check for what listeners will actually experience across the rest of the album. Wright weaves careful poetry over sunny 80s vacation pop with a falsetto chorus. It’s something that doesn’t really make sense at first, but after a few listeners, the absurdity of it starts to fade. Wright wonders if God will lose him in light of seeing friends walk away, but he ultimately rests in the fact that, per Jude, God will keep His people.
The title track kicks things down a bit, opting for a colder mood as Wright contemplates how God uses even death itself for the purposes of redemption. Once again, there’s some falsetto at play.
“Hear Me Out” completes the trifecta of standout opening tracks (“The Beginning” feels more like an intro). Again, it’s 80s-flavored, included a nice bass groove and clapping that help give a strong rhythmic backbone. The lyrics speak of God’s faithfulness and grace that overcomes our persistent sin. There’s a bit of bite in Wright’s voice which shows through on several songs, and it suggests a bit of punk or emo influence that doesn’t manifest musically.
Things change up on “Inscribe”, a song that seems to borrow a bit from world music and features more prominent clean guitar. It might be comparable to some of Andrew Peterson’s earlier works or even Caedmon’s Call – and the simple, campfire feeling builds toward the end to powerful effect.
The ending of the album is a sizable musical change-up, and it’s largely for the weaker. These tracks are quieter, more barren, more pensive. Lyrically, it makes sense to some respects. “An Industry”, as mentioned early, is a heartbroken confession to God on how we have corrupted and commodified His person. “Haunted Halls” is a meditation on how we cannot escape God’s presence and how we are secure in the Holy Ghost. The lyrics do feel a bit redundant and jagged here, unfortunately.
“Fearful Heart” is a sort of musical return to form, and while it’s not as strong as some of the earlier tracks on the album, it explores the dual nature of fear – fear of man and fear of God. It’s an interesting topic, and it sees Wright confess God’s justice and wrath as well as His abundant care and protection. The song shifts from piano ballad to a high-energy guitar solo and dynamic close.
The album closes appropriately on “The End”, a song that reminds me a bit of Attalus with its piano lines. Once again, I think a bit of Andrew Peterson.
Jonathan Allen Wright is clearly a thoughtful songwriter who isn’t afraid to distill complex theological matters into digestible songs. His subject matter is much-needed in the greater context of the Christian music industry, and his musical choices are certainly uncommon at large. There’s definitely something special here. That said, the album does full imbalanced when it comes to overall song quality and things drag a bit toward the end with many tracks feeling less developed (even when the lyrics still hit). The vocals in particular tend to feel slightly-off on the production side and some of the lyrical lines feel awkwardly-inflexible given their greater context. So, Doorways & Tombstones is promising but doesn’t feel fully-realized. Wright has already begun releasing more songs and doesn’t appear to be slowing down soon, so hopefully he’ll continue to grow and provide a faithful voice in the scene.