The Phantom Tollbooth

Journals of a Recovering Skeptic
Artist: Mark Williams
Label: Awakening Records
Time: 51:13/12 tracks

After Mark Heard's death six years ago, some prominent Christian musicians made a special effort to explain to their peers and to their fans how under-appreciated Heard had been, as an artist and as a producer. During the years since then, a new generation of artists has come into prominence, and some of them have been strongly influenced by Heard's work. One such artist is Mark Williams.

The signs of Heard's influence on Williams are many and plain; the most obvious sign being the mention of Heard and the cover of Heard's "Tip of My Tongue" in the liner notes. Williams' songs explore some of the same topics as Heard's work: superficiality ("Two Dollars"), and the human state, with its alienation and longing and hope ("God Is," "Born This Way"). "Giants" is at least faintly reminiscent of Heard's "In the Gaze of the Spotlight's Eye" in its treatment of the expectations audiences place on an artist.

But Williams is no mere Mark Heard wanna-be. The songs on this album deal with some themes Heard did not write about frequently, in particular romantic relationships. The album includes "Arms of Another," which is about taking responsibility for a failed relationship. Such songs are a rarity among Christian artists. There are also three songs about new love, with all its wonders ("Miracle") and uncertainties ("How Do I Say Goodnight?," "Just Wanna Hold You").

Another difference is that Williams writes and sings songs from a more directly evangelical point of view than that from which Heard usually wrote and sang. Although Williams' songs don't rate high on the Jesus-per-minute scale, songs like "What You Can't See" and "Forgiving Eyes" take core Christian beliefs as givens, rather than hinting, a la Heard, at those truths as the basis for understanding life. Songs like "Rain" and "God Is," though refreshingly free of Christianese, consciously present God as being actively involved in day-to-day life.

Williams lyrics are direct and prosaic (though written as rhyming verse), conversational rather than poetic. Indeed, the words and phrases sound so conversational that sometimes his rhyming seems out of place, as though the rhymes were included because songs always rhyme. For the most part, though, Williams steers clear of affectation and the temptation to try to be profound.

Though Williams' musical style includes a mix of folk and rock similar to Heard's style, the songs on this album lean more heavily toward folk. "Tip of My Tongue," "Forgiving Eyes," and "Miracle" are the rockiest songs on the album. Williams plays acoustic and electric guitars, dulcimers (hammer and mountain), and assorted percussion instruments. David Pridgen and Dan Davis share the drumming chores. Jeff Wilson and the album's co-producer Wes Lachot play bass. Lachot and Williams' production choices yield a clean, clear sound.

There are aspects of this album that I like very much, especially the understated musical arrangements. I also like Williams' musicianship, which is solid and not showy. Other aspects of the album are not so strong. The relationship songs can do with less angst, and Williams can be more mindful of his vocal limitations. These are things maturity can and (I hope) will improve. Overall, the strong points outweigh the weak points.

By Chris Parks (11/24/98)