Generally speaking, faith-based songwriting tends to be an either-or proposition in the work of Sandra McCracken. When not offering introspective folk music about the human condition and everyday life, she’s typically dabbling with hymns, as heard on her 2006 project The Builder and the Architect and her contributions to Caedmon’s Call, City on a Hill, and other worshipful projects.
Is McCracken unable to blend together the sacred and secular? I wish she would develop a more introspective exploration of faith reminiscent of Rich Mullins, Amy Grant, Mark Heard, or Sara Groves to name a few. In some ways, McCracken’s 2008 release Red Balloon demonstrated this integration, which might be why I felt it was her strongest album to date.
Instead, McCracken treads familiar ground with In Feast or Fallow, her second album of reworked hymns and hymn-ish songs in her 10-year career. That’s not a complaint. McCracken has always had a knack for bridging old hymn texts rich in theology with modern Americana and alternative pop. The more she works at this combination, the better she gets at it—without liner notes and songwriting credits, I wouldn’t be able to discern which ones are McCracken originals and which are hymn adaptations.
The album has a familiar sound for fans of McCracken and Paste magazine alike. In Feast or Fallow resembles what you might get if Patty Griffin, Sheryl Crow, and Jill Phillips got together for an album of hymns with some of the indie folk instrumentation that characterizes St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens. As produced by McCracken’s husband Derek Webb, the project is very much reminiscent of The Builder and the Architect, only with more inventive instrumentation, often drenched in reverb.
Confession: I for one am growing weary of the alt-folk sound, with the meandering melodies and mellow feel, whimsically adding bells, woodwinds, and synths over the acoustic base. In many ways, In Feast or Fallow sounds like it’s been done before over and over these last five years. Nothing about it is surprising or fresh, and I’d daresay it even bores me at times. For these reasons, songs like “Give Reviving,” “New Wonders,” and “This Is the Christ” fail to ignite my ears or my soul—a pity given the superbly crafted lyrics.
Of course, if you still adore the alt-folk sound, there’s much to love here, and I must also confess that it’s nice to hear it applied to worship, specifically McCracken’s hymn-like texts and adaptations of church standards. The style suits “Petition,” which copes with fear and trust in the context of its hymn-like stanzas, and “Can’t Help Myself,” a Psalm inspired reminder that though we are helpless, we are also safe in the arms of our Creator.
“Justice Will Roll Down” stands out not just as the most upbeat track on the album, but also as an example of a modern day hymn that challenges us to take action through the support of everyday missions. “Sweet Sorrow” also benefits from McCracken’s gentle acoustic pop style and one of the sweeter melodies heard on the project.
The most successful of the new songs is the title track, a duet with Webb that has a flowing melody reminiscent of the most memorable hymns, and beautiful words about relying on God in good times and bad. Another highlight is “Faith’s Review & Expectation,” an odd title for an obvious reworking of “Amazing Grace” that somehow changes the melody without changing the classic feel of the hymn.
In Feast or Fallow will inspire mixed reactions from listeners. I can empathize with those who find it dull as well as those who find it brilliant. While I can’t help but feel McCracken is missing an opportunity to make her songs more catchy and accessible (see 2006’s Gravity | Love and 2008’s Red Balloon), there’s no denying this hymns project is reverent, thought-provoking, artful, and more enjoyable than Patty Griffin’s overrated Downtown Church album. For what it is, In Feast or Fallow is very well done.
Standouts: “In Feast or Fallow,” “Faith’s Review & Expectation,” “Justice Will Roll Down”