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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: John Cox
Label: Grace Alone Records (2001)/Grassroots
Length: 10 Tracks (49:58 minutes)
Depending upon how the listener chooses to view such matters, 80 Years represents either the next logical step in John Cox's ongoing musical evolution or a resolute return to his beginnings. Born in Chico, Texas, a small town of less than 1,000 residents, Cox studied trumpet and violin during his early years before turning to the guitar as a teenager. After high school, Cox performed club dates in the nearby Dallas area before becoming a Christian and moving to Nashville. His 1997 major-label debut, Sunny Day, was immensely successful, placing four of its songs into the Christian Hit Radio and Rock Top Ten and landing its title track at the Number One slot on the video charts. But before Cox could begin work on a follow-up, his parent label, Questar Records, exited the Christian music business, leaving him to spend the next several years touring as a solo artist, worship leader and speaker.
Despite the unsure circumstances surrounding its production, the 80 Years album, released through Cox's self-started indie label, Grace Alone Records, displays a particularly upbeat disposition. Like Sunny Day before it, the bulk of the new project bears the unapologetically direct and evangelistic lyrical approach that gave its predecessor its bold character. But, where the first effort displayed a distinctly dark temperament and was laced with songs of perplexity ("What are We Doing Here"), irony (the title track) and pain ("Tell Me"), 80 Years bears the stamp of an artist who has traded the simmering restlessness of the debut for a decidedly more contented frame of mind. The mesmerizing, slightly dissonant "Where I'm Going" ("How could I ever say no/ What else would I do/ Where else would I go) addresses the believer's joy at conversion. "Stone" (You caught me before I even fell/ Know my heart's in your hands) celebrates salvational certainty. And entries like "Perfect Part" and the swirling "Live My Life" are, at their core, buoyant songs of worship extolling the faithful and sustaining nature of God.
Like its lyrics, the musical side of 80 Years also mirrors the more subdued tone of Cox's present spiritual post, featuring a softer, more glossy production than the first album and leaning heavier towards the pop side of the pop/rock equation. But, while the more subdued musical textures somewhat dampen the urgency and drive of the new release, Cox's daunting vocal ability and perennial knack for constructing infectious pop hooks remain in full effect and play well against the album's kinder, gentler weave. And bandmembers Tom Michael, Todd Shay and Brett Vargason have lost nary a trace of the impressive instrumental skills and tightness that have made Cox's live shows such memorable experiences. In the final analysis, despite its being a labor of love from an indie artist rather than the result of a major label's larger workforce and resources, 80 Years stands quite capably on its own two feet, exhibiting an engaging pop sensibility and pervading sense of both optimism and peace that betrays little hint of the uncertain atmosphere in which the album was created.
Bert Gangl 10/1/2001