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Living Room
Artist: Wayne Watson
Label: Spring Hill Music (2002)
Length: 10 Tracks (44:22 minutes)

In order to fully appreciate Wayne Watson's latest work, one needs to view it in the context of the years leading up to its release.  In January of 1999, just prior to the start of songwriting for the self-titled follow-up to his critically-lauded 1998 The Way Home album, Watson suffered a freak skiing accident that broke several ribs.  The injury gave way to pneumonia, which led to more broken ribs and a bout of depression that left the singer virtually incapacitated.  Work on the eponymous effort was shelved for nearly a year while Watson recovered.  When the album was finally released, it was, not surprisingly, a mostly melancholy affair tackling such somber issues as the Columbine tragedy, the death of Watson's father to cancer and the artist's own long, slow journey back to wholeness.

If the self-titled effort acted as a musical catharsis of sorts, Living Room, its successor, finds Watson in a decidedly looser, more upbeat humor.  "Climb on Up" and "Somebody Sing" barrel out of their starting gates atop volleys of vigorous, raw-edged percussion and piercing guitar work.  The soul-filled "Steal Me Away" features a similarly stripped-back, organic production aesthetic that contrasts with much of Watson's previous output, but nonetheless works as an ideally-suited foil for his smooth and distinctive singing style.  "Something's Gonna Humble You" is a rousing stab at blue-eyed funk, a la Charlie Peacock's "Experience."  And even orchestrally-adorned tracks like "Dreaming Again" and "Long Way from the Manger" are far more lively and grand than they are cloying or somber.

In the same way, the new album finds Watson trading in the mostly murky lyrics of his last album for a more high-spirited collection of themes.  "Somebody Sing" offers an earnest and encouraging reminder of Christ's transforming power.  "Cry of My Heart" issues a likewise piquant pledge of whole-hearted trust in, and devotion to, God.  And "Glorify Your Name" is an awe-inspired survey on the vastness of the Divine.  Indeed, even entries like "Climb on Up" and "Dreaming Again" (I will not go back/ And relive what's best forgotten), which ostensibly reference Watson's dark night of the soul, do so from the backward-glancing perspective of one who has come to terms with his trials and moved on.

In all fairness, ambition occasionally outstrips ability in some of Watson's forays into more hard-rocking territory.  And the new record's looser, more off-the-cuff temperament renders it somewhat less lastingly memorable than some of Watson's darker, more reflective works.  That said, though, the Living Room project still stands as a stirring, proficiently-performed slice of inspirational pop/rock that merits notice from both perennial Watson followers and first-time listeners alike.  Indeed, while it lacks a sure-fire classic single on the order of "Home Free" or "Touch of the Master's Hand," it nonetheless shows the 25-year, seventeen-album, veteran back near the top of his game and ready to give the Avalon's and FFH's of the world a run for their collective money.  Welcome home, Wayne.

Bert Gangl 1/11/2003

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