“Blessed be the ones who know that they are weak.” So sings Jason Gray on the song that lends the title to his first major-label album All the Lovely Losers. The chorus was a bellwether for the type of music Gray continues to produce: songs that recognize our humanity, faults and all, and try to shine a little holy light into the dark places.
In many ways Gray has established himself as a champion of the underdog, but not in the conventional cheerleader sense the world would have us know. No, Gray considers our weakness a gift, because it is in weakness that we discover the sufficiency of our Savior. He writes songs that minister in ways few others can, and Gray has a remarkable ability to cast our celebrations and sorrows in accessible and eloquent musical vessels.
Before we rank Gray’s label releases, let’s acknowledge a few other standout albums. Acoustic Storytime is a live song-and-story compilation of selections from his indie releases and first national release, and it’s delightful. It’s worth a listen if for nothing else than Gray’s Tom Petty/Roy Orbison mashups and his amusing love song “If I Were a Dog.” Song Cycles is a music geek gem, chronicling the production of four songs from rough draft to finished product to remix. And Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy tells the Christmas story through traditional carols and new songs written from the perspective of the original participants in the nativity.
5. All The Lovely Losers (2007)
Gray’s label debut for Centricity was a harbinger of the artist’s extraordinary potential. The cover’s sketch of the downcast boy with the broken heart hinted that this wasn’t vacuous pop music or trite worship music. On the other hand, these weren’t navel-gazing singer-songwriter dirges, either. Songs like “Sing Through Me” and “I’m Not Going Down” rally the listener not by ignoring struggle but by acknowledging it head on. They are also examples of the sometimes heavy-handed production that nonetheless revealed Gray’s musical versatility.
A standout track is “The Cut,” which features a flawless background vocal from Sara Groves and ranks among Gray’s finest tracks.
Jason Ingram shared production duties with Cason Cooley on Gray’s fourth release, and the results are noticeably chimeric to the discerning ear. Radio singles “With Every Act of Love” and “Laugh Out Loud” are a little incongruous on this tear-stained album. Its emotional core is found in a callback line to his sophomore release: “This one goes out to you when everything sad isn’t coming untrue.”
The album was a commercial milepost for Gray, charting on the Billboard 200, the magazine’s all-genre album chart. This is probably despite the melancholy, not because of it, though this is an album for the valley and the shadow. “Not Right Now” and “If You Want to Love Someone” are treasures for those in the valley and the ones around them who don’t know what to say.
Gray’s anticipated sophomore release was noteworthy right out of the gate, when Tolkien fans cheered the Samwise Gamgee-inspired title. The new production team of Jason Ingram and Rusty Varenkamp helped Gray find his musical groove and navigate the fickle waters of Christian radio with a breakthrough hit in “More Like Falling in Love.” The song (and album) are reminders that Gray crafts some pretty deep theology into the catchiest pop hooks.
There are strong co-writes on this one, two completely different title tracks, and what might be the ultimate anthem for introverts (“How I Ended Up Here”). Yes, it was a sophomore release, but it showed maturity and strong progress while maintaining the artist’s heart. Do you want to understand Jason Gray as an artist? Cue up the last four songs on Everything Sad is Coming Untrue.
“I’m not who I was, you won’t recognize me,” says Jason Gray on this, his “after the storm” album. The tears of Love Will Have The Final Word are dry, and though scars remain there is resurrection.
This is in many ways a new sound for Gray. He’s broken the producer mold and worked with nine different people on Light, along with lots of new collaborators. There’s even a fist-pumping, hand-clapping “empowerment anthem” to open the album.
In a song called “Lovers In Our Heads,” Todd Agnew sings this verse: “Mary’s driving home again, turns on the radio. No one’s writing songs about divorce. But she could use a verse or two, anything that brings just a few moments of light in the middle of this darkness.” Well, Mary, Jason Gray and Andy Gullahorn have written “Death Without A Funeral,” and it’s both heart-rending and suitably unresolved. But then it’s followed by the title track, and the wound is where the light gets in. The video below is the official lyric video for “Learning.”
There is not a single track on A Way To See In The Dark that’s not at least in some small way profound. The album looks fear in the face and calls it out. It confesses deep sorrow and depression and declares that “Nothing is Wasted”. Like the Psalms, it is praise and pleading, reverence and recollection.
“Remind Me Who I Am” and “Good To Be Alive” were Gray’s highest-charting singles, and both are excellent, but they’re not the best this album has to offer. Similarly, the title track is a standout, and shows how well Gray tends to write in 3/4 or 6/8 time. (Seriously, pick those songs out from each album and notice how great they are.) Where Gray really shines is on the acoustic end of his musical quiver. It’s a little hard to listen to “Without Running Away,” but it speaks so well to the wounded. “I Will Find a Way” lets us benefit from Gray’s literary penchant, using a Walter Wangerin, Jr. monologue and an Andy Gullahorn collaboration to craft one of the finest songs of incarnation ever. And “Jesus We Are Grateful” is an unexpected but brilliant closing hymn.
A Way To See In The Dark is an album it manages to entertain us, make us think, and minister to our deepest needs, all at the same time, and that’s why it’s Jason Gray’s finest work.