Prime Cuts: Wrong Well, The Thief, Love is Alive
Overall Grade: 4.5/5
The dry spell is finally over for Susan Ashton. Way back in the 90s, Ashton was the dame of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) where everything she touched was graced with success. Her debut "Wakened by the Wind" was the all time top selling album for Sparrow Records. Her sophomore effort "Angels of Mercy" birthed four CCM number one hits with a Grammy nomination thrown in as a bonus. Her 1996 "Distant Call" finds her working with Sheryl Crowe, Alison Krauss, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Later, Ashton did branch out of CCM and scored big time with pianist Jim Brickman as their song "The Gift." She even got to open for Garth Brooks on the European leg of his World Tour. Then in 1999 Ashton left CCM completely by recording a country album "Closer." One more worship album later, Ashton vanished. She entered a dry season in her life where she left the music business, became a nanny and (according to her website) she was also shovelling horse poop. Finally, after 14 years without a solo record, God has brought Ashton back with a 6-track EP entitled "The Thief."
So, what is this EP like? As they say a picture is worth a thousand words, the album cover is most telling. The cover depicts a black crow perched on a tree branch. Perhaps because of their plumage, their unnerving calls and their tendency to eat carrion, crows are often symbolic of being harbingers of gloom and sin. Likewise these songs revolve around how often we have allowed Satan (the thief) to bring us gloom because we do not know how to face up to our sins. Therefore, each of these 6 tracks deals with sin in its various repercussions and its encroachments. Stylistically, Ashton adopts an organic, starker and rootsier candor than say her 1999 "Closer" album. And if comparisons are to be made, Sara Groves or Gretchen Peters or Shelby Lynne in her post-Nashville days come to mind. "Moonshine" is a subtle song that grows in stature with each listen. "Moonshine" is an artsy treatise of human nature: comparing us with the moon that is dark in nature but only lightens up when it reflects the sun's rays. Likewise human nature is deprived and sinful, but we can only shine if we allow Christ to live and reign in us.
Following "Moonshine" is Ashton's take of Gary Wright's "Love is Alive." With its shimmering B3 organ, the bluesy plucking of the acoustic guitar, Ashton's full passionate alto is in full glory here on this jaunty country-sounding tune. The tempo drops with the guitar-driven narrative driven title cut "The Thief." Though the word "Satan" is never mentioned but Ashton did tweet that the song was inspired by John 10:10 where Jesus calls Satan a "thief." Here, Ashton tells of Satan's serpentine ways of how like a "sweet romancer" often leads us into temptations. The uptempo "Become Myself" is the most God-explicit song where it functions as a prayer for God to save us from the lies that make us inauthentic. The cream of the crop is the spiritual surging country ballad "Wrong Well." "Wrong Well" finds Ashton returning to the root of the problem of sin: we have deliberately chosen not to drink from the well of living waters.
What is most disappointing about "The Thief" is that after 14 years between records, all we get are merely 6 tracks! Nevertheless, they are wonderful crafted ones. Let's just hope the wait for Ashton's next set of new music won't be that long. But the years of waiting certainly have given Ashton a more matured and seasoned delivery. So when she cries out to God not to overlook the forgotten in "Not Small" there deep seated gravitas of faith, pain and joy coming from a woman who knows what she is singing.