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- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
If any Amy Grant album -- indeed, any contemporary Christian music (CCM) album -- deserves a 20th anniversary edition, it's Lead Me On (1988). Over 20 years ago, from the moment you first started playing your LP, cassette tape, or CD of this album (and I had the LP version, which had two fewer songs than the other two formats), if you were paying even a modicum of attention, you knew immediately something was different. The opening shake of the tambourine and the cascade of organic sound that immediately followed was the total opposite of the technopop of Amy Grant's previous release, the successful crossover (i.e., from Christian to secular markets) album Unguarded. Unguarded had been many things -- extremely evangelistic, joyful, and fun come most immediately to mind -- but it had only very rarely been deep and even less frequently been introspective. Lead Me On showed us an Amy Grant who was willing to bare her darker side, not (thankfully) in a way that even remotely approached a gossipy tell-all, but in a here's-what-my-real-life-is-like kind of admission. (In interviews, Grant and her then-husband Gary Chapman spelled out what much of the music pointed to: an extremely difficult time in their marriage.) In doing so, Grant not only made an "artist's album" that showed her, for the first time, to be a very talented poet as well as a very good pop songwriter, but also unintentionally brought the entire CCM industry to a new level of honesty and maturity.
The album opens with the poetic "1974," a song recalling Grant's teenage conversion to Christianity in the year mentioned. The song surprises by being both wistful ("We were young") and honest about Grant's own sense of distance from that faith (to God, she pleads, "Stay with me/Make it ever new/So time will not undo/As the years go by/How I need to see/That's still me"). It is immediately followed by the rich lyricism of the title track. Using evocative imagery to depict both slavery and concentration camps as illustrations of inexplicable events, the song offers no answers for the issues it raises, but only poses questions. The only possible response is to ask God to "lead [us] on" into his presence. The musically quirky "Shadows" initially sounds lighthearted, but it describes a Romans 7-type battle between good and evil within the speaker and conveys a sense of both sadness and menace in its atypical-for-Grant lengthy musical conclusion. Thanks are due to the wonderful band The Innocence Mission for this cover tune, although Grant took their song and made substantial lyrical changes to it. (I'm not sure about the musical end.)
The album then slows down for the first CCM single, "Saved by Love." Amidst standard country music stylings, Grant first paints a loving picture of a sibling's (here given the fictional name of "Laura") challenging life before turning the spotlight upon herself. The transparency then goes through the roof as the singer confesses to adulterous temptations and prays for God to remove them in the harrowing "Faithless Heart." All of the struggles related in the song are internal -- Grant made it clear in interviews that no transgression had been committed -- but CCM conventions were nonetheless shattered.
If you weren't uncomfortable and challenged yet, the biting "What about the Love" (the side two opener if you had the LP version) would no doubt throw you over the edge if you paid attention to the lyrics. Credited to both '70s pop star Janis Ian and the lesser-known Kye Fleming, the song blisteringly critiques evangelicals for a lack of concern for social justice and a lack of love in general. These sentiments are couched within stories related by a devout-but-legalistic speaker, a technique that drives the point home with force when the speaker realizes that the real problem is his or her own judgmentalism. The repentant tones of pop songwriter Jimmy Webb's moving "If These Walls Should Speak" follow next. Grant stretches her voice to incredible effect in this spare, piano-driven ballad of family estrangement.
The album now winds to its conclusion. "All Right," a gospel song, looks with hope to God's faithfulness in the midst of many troubles without taking back the many questions already raised in previous songs. Just one simple line of doubt amidst the hope, "When will I learn there are no guarantees," proves enough to again move us away from standard CCM territory. It is ironically followed by the less confident, although still hopeful, "Wait for the Healing," a song that examines pain on a cultural level and offers no answers save for the advice to do what the song title says. The album then closes with three songs about marital relations: the optimistic "Sure Enough," the bouncy-but-tinged-with-uncertainty "If You Have to Go Away," and the moving closer "Say Once More." All three express marital commitment in the midst of doubts and/or other challenges.
At the time it was released, Lead Me On was billed as a step backward from pop star trajectory for Amy Grant, but that assessment has always been too surface-level. Yes, the album is often musically spare when compared with Grant's two previous studio releases (Straight Ahead and Unguarded), but not always; songs such as "Lead Me On" and "Wait for the Healing" are more complex and rich musically than anything on those albums. Yes, the album is unquestionably more of an artist's album than an appeal to the masses. But it's important to remember the album that had dominated the pop music scene since the previous year and had shot a band to superstardom: U2's The Joshua Tree. That album was full of musically "organic" (a term favored by Grant to describe Lead Me On) and spare, lyrically downbeat "desert songs" (U2's term for The Joshua Tree's content). It's always been hard for me not to see Lead Me On as Amy Grant's own Joshua Tree, and I've always supposed that A&M Records limited their tinkering with the album (most later Grant records would be plagued by the company's interference) in the hope that it could ride on U2's coattails.
In any case, Lead Me On still retains most of its power after 20 years, and its influence on the CCM industry proved remarkable. Some artists (e.g., Out of the Grey) have said that a major reason for their decision to enter Christian music was seeing the artistic freedom accorded Grant with this album. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine artists such as Jars of Clay being able to make their music without Lead Me On having blazed the honesty trail path. And as Grant herself admits in an interview on the 20th anniversary extras disc, it probably will remain her most-loved and most-remembered album. If you already love Lead Me On, the 20th anniversary edition is worth the price for the live versions of several songs taken from the 1988-89 tour. (The new acoustic studio versions of some songs are puzzling, as more live versions would have been infinitely preferable.) But in any format, Lead Me On is still, in this reviewer's mind, the best CCM album ever made, and unquestionably an outstanding album by any standards.