The Phantom Tollbooth

Artist: Steven Curtis Chapman
Label: Sparrow

An electronica album from the Dove Awards's favourite son? Well, no. But this latest trip to the recording studio sees Chapman moving firmly away from the stripped-down sound of his last album; bringing in big sounds and plenty of programming. That is not to say that this is a huge departure, but the programmed drums certainly make their presence felt.

Chapman also risks alarming his established position with the track "The Change" which questions whether "Christian" t-shirts, wristbands and other paraphenalia have any value unless they are accompanied by a real change of heart. Musically, the track places Chapman's slightly distorted, but still clear vocals above a fairly generic programmed beat and swirling guitar before shifting up a gear for the sing-along chorus. Let's just hope the lyrics don't get printed on a t-shirt.

Each song is prefaced in the album sleeve by scripture references, and many of them are best considered as worship tracks. Chapman is a decent songwriter, so long as the lyrics are considered as a set of praise songs rather than deeply probing or confessional writings. Chapman's writing is perhaps summed up in his own words in "I Do Believe":

I take my pen and start to write
The thoughts that fill my head tonight
Nothing terribly profound
Just these simple words
That keep my heart anchored down
That keep my restless heart anchored down
Musically the effect is sometimes well executed adult pop but too frequently there are sections which are either over-produced or over-burdened with too many elements. This is not as successful as Signs of Life.

No doubt Chapman's many fans will snap up copies of this album as soon as they hit the shelves and he'll pick up another full mantelpiece before long, but despite that he remains an artist who seems able to criticise at least parts of the scene he is involved in.

James Stewart 9/26/99