Following a critically acclaimed debut and a bold live second record, acoustic alternative worship wunderkind Shawn McDonald returns with Ripen, his third and strongest release yet.
On Ripen, McDonald stays true to his plaintive, searching lyrical style and his acoustic-driven arrangements. The operational principle for the artist and producers Christopher Stevens and Will Hunt seems to be intimacy. From the close-mike recording of his voice (so close it sounds at times like the microphone was actually inside McDonalds mouth), to the soul-bearing and confessional lyrics, the record breaks right through the barrier between music and listener. Rich layers of cello, violin, viola and bass create a warm and rich backdrop for the acoustic guitar; and oddly effective loops and percussion programming add pop and drive to the songs. Though shades of John Mayer or David Gray will no doubt be heard by some, by incorporating the live strings (often
playing more like sound effects than a string section), haunting melodies and McDonalds throaty vocals, a truly unique sound emerges.
Odd loops and imaginative string arrangements pervade the entire disc, adding wonderful color to the already strong songs. Steel guitar, accordion and hand percussion are enough to make the worship ballad Pour Out stand out as one of the most beautiful songs on the disc, while Imago offers a brightly colored Latin instrumental interlude. Take Hold uses cello and viola to create suspensions and resolutions that combine with perfect melodies and turn a relatively plain and predictable chorus lyric, Take hold/Dont give up/You got to make the best of what you got/ Give it all your best shot, into one of the high points of the disc.
With over 15 songs and more than an hour of playing time, Shawn McDonald weaves a fabric of music that functions as devotional art on one level and just plain beautiful music on another. Dark, often melancholy, but ultimately uplifting in a very real world way, Ripen proves that McDonald is a creative force to be reckoned with.
JOHN J. THOMPSON CCMMagazine.com
Soft-spoken, sincere and even a little shy in the spotlight, Shawn McDonald hardly seems the rebellious type. But thats exactly how he describes his attitude about making his second studio disc, "Ripen" (Sparrow).
I think I got a little risky this time, he says by phone from Ashland, Ore., where hes playing a show later this particular Monday evening. I guess Im a rebel in the sense that if people expect something from me, Ill naturally go a different way.
While hes quick to admit hes not into switching things for shock values sake, McDonald does know that fans might be a little surprised by the lack of blatant pop songs on "Ripen." With this record, I think a lot of kids are like, Where are the songs like "Take My Hand" and "Gravity?"'" he confesses. Basically, they arent here. They will probably show up again on future records, but coming into this record, I was like, You know, its not about writing catchy pop songs. Its about moving the heart. So I tried to make a record that was genuine, about who I am and what I wanted to say. And I believe and pray that, if people take the time with these songs, God will use them to draw people closer to Him.
Slow Train Coming
When writing songs for "Ripen," McDonald is the first to admit that he was a little intimidated by the process. Before he signed with Sparrow Records and released "Simply Nothing," McDonald had several years, rather than several months, to craft his material. With "Ripen," however, he was on a much tighter schedule. I definitely had to be a little more intentional and serious about my writing this time, he says. But that was a good thing ultimately because it really stretched me.
And it doesnt hurt, either, that he had some spectacular scenery to be inspired by as he wrote about a third of the tracks (including "Ripen"s moody, heaven-minded opener, I Want to Be Ready) on a train ride from Germany to France. Basically, any time I would think of a topic Id want to write about, I would just open up a new Word document on my computer and write. Then any time Id get stumped, Id just move on to the next one. Some songs were finished, some werent, McDonald relays. I was going through a really emotional period. I was passing some really incredible history some old, old buildings, cathedrals and countrysides. I think I was overwhelmed because it was all so moving. Many of the songs were inspired during that time. Ultimately, Europe is such a different place than America, so enchanting.
Tying the songs of "Ripen" together are three interludes that showcase more of an experimental side of McDonald, whether its the free-style rap of Ramblings of a Beggar, the Revelation-inspired The Rider on the White Horse or the entrancing beats of Imago. And stirring the pot up musically is something that McDonald aspired to do on "Ripen" with the acquisition of several new musical instruments an Indonesian Timor guitar, a broken piano he picked up at a Seattle thrift store and several others he found at flea markets and, of course, on eBay. Thats part of making music; you can make music with anything. You could hit on the arm of a chair with sticks and get the kind of drum sound you like, McDonald says. We really wanted something that wasnt typical for a studio recording and would also be really fun to play live.
He describes "Ripen" as a journey over hills, down valleys and to new experiences. And for the optimum listening experience, its also a project thats meant to be enjoyed from start to finish. Yes, "Ripen" is an anomaly in the iPod generation where singles are often cherry-picked and downloaded without much regard for the rest of the disc. Fans know theyd be missing out to take such an approach with McDonalds work. Consider their response when "Ripen" released in March. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Christian retail chart and at No. 2 on Billboards Heatseeker chart, selling more than 9,300 copies its first week out.
So what is it about McDonalds music that sets him apart from the pack, that connects so deeply with audiences? Hes doing something that other people arent doing, says fellow recording artist Bebo Norman. Shawn doesnt sound like anybody else; and that, to me, is always a breath of fresh air. Hes one of the most talented and creative artists in Christian music. Artistically, I have more respect for him than I know what to do with.
Norman is also quick to point to the influence McDonald has had on him. On a personal level, I just valued my time with him when we were on tour, he says. I walked away from that looking at things differently in a good way, and in a healthy way. Shawn gave me a different perspective on what he was trying to pursue and what I should try to pursue, even, in music.
It comes as no surprise that a Shawn McDonald recording is going to reflect deeply on the artists personal life. God is growing me up, which is why the album is called 'Ripen,' McDonald explains. I dont feel like the same person I was five years ago. And rightly so I shouldnt be. Im walking with God, and Hes teaching me new things. My vision, my heart, all these things are being molded to be more like Christ. This is a journey, and I want people to come along with me. Lets learn; lets grow; and lets do this together.
Also providing McDonald a new perspective on life and music is his recent marriage to Kate thats just hit the nine-month mark. Marriage has made me have to learn to be a man to buck up and lead. I think its taught me a lot of leadership and really stretched my compassion level, just my love in general for people, he says. Marriage is hard. Its hands down the hardest thing Ive ever done. I can honestly say that I think our first year is going to be one of our hardest. Im on the road all the time, and on top of that, theres the fact that Im on a stage and get a lot of attention. But even though its been kind of a rough first year, were making it through. And its good; and it just keeps getting better. But I think its really crazy, the part that God has really softened my heart. I dont know that I saw that coming.
And in a superficial world, its transparency like this thats really the most rebellious and equally refreshing thing about McDonald, a quality the likes of James Dean probably wished hed had a little more of.