For many, the phrase “Third World” brings to mind stark images of poverty, despair, and desolation. A place to be avoided. A people to be pitied. What, then, would a Third World Symphony sound like? Could something beautiful come from a place like that? Shaun Groves brings the answer in a triumphant return to music that ponders the presence of poverty and our response to it, celebrates the gifts the third world can give us, and praises God throughout.
It’s probably not fair to call Third World Symphony a comeback album for Groves, since the phrase tends to evoke an image of a washed-up performer struggling to draw just one more hit from a near-empty well. This is more like a new and very different chapter, like a debut album chronicling a season in which Groves came face to face with another world and was changed to the core.
In this new world of virtual interconnectedness, you can often tell a lot about a person from his/her blog, and singer/songwriter Shaun Groves is certainly no exception.
In the same way that fellow artist Ryan Adams has been called “prolific” for the sheer number of songs he writes and records on a regular basis, Shaun also never seems short on inspiration for his little corner of cyberspace. And like many independent artists, he’s making the most of modern technology and the way it magically shrinks the gap between musicians and the diverse individuals who love their songs.
Whether it’s personal insight into what inspires the music or humorous reflections on the joys (and everyday challenges) of raising four kids who are 10 and under, it’s just one of Shaun’s favorite ways to get the word out about his music, ministry and well, everything else he feels like sharing.
Now as Shaun’s fourth studio album, Third World Symphony, hits iTunes, Amazon and the like, we thought it opportune to catch up with the Nashville-based artist and find out about his new songs, ’round-the-world travels, and the most recent addition to his family.
The Internet has done remarkable things for the music industry of late. Take Kickstarter, for example, a website which allows artists to raise support for their work by soliciting donations from their fan base. Among those who have utilized this democratic tool is acclaimed singer/songwriter Shaun Groves. After three successful albums on the Rocketown label, Groves went on a hibernation of sorts, devoting more time to his family and becoming a global ambassador for Compassion International.
Now, in a funny sort of way, Groves’ work with Compassion has yielded a new album, part of what seems like a fresh season in the tall, thoughtful Texan’s career. Third World Symphony is more globally-minded and urgent than Groves’ previous work, but just as remarkable in its poignant ruminations on postmodern Christianity. And musically, it’s as solid as they come. Groves combines terrific folk melodies with a knack for spinning listen-twice couplets, like the question, “What in this world ain’t busted? Crowns and cathedrals rusted, is there a thing we can trust in, down here?” on “Down Here.”
Style: Gospel Americana; compare to Derek Webb, Phil Wickham, NEEDTOBREATHE
Top tracks: “All Is Grace,” “I’ve Got You,” “Enough”
Transitioning from label-produced singer/songwriter to independent social justice troubadour, Groves has invested recent years in the third world through a partnership with Compassion. Translating to tape his spiritual perspectives-through-global experiences, Groves creates an album full of poetically confrontational songs compelling Christians to act. Whether leveling the field on “No Better” (“We’ve all got hell to pay / And grace pays all we owe”) to the backdrop of a slow-rolling banjo and old school electric guitar, or an acoustic hyperdrive (uncannily recalling Mumford & Sons’ “Roll Away Your Stone”) channeling a prayer for just the basics on “Enough,” Groves is obviously passionate about Jesus’ challenge in Matthew 25.
There is something to be said for both ambition and compassion, and with a grand title like Third World Symphony, it’s clear that Shaun Groves is shooting for the big themes of faith on his fourth full-length album. With song titles like “All is Grace” and “Kingdom Coming,” it’s equally clear that he is not afraid to think big and tackle weighty issues like justice and loving your neighbor. In a globalized world, your neighbor can be someone who lives across the sea, but is still affected by the choices you make every day.
A wiser man than this reviewer once said that “folks need to be reminded of things more often than they need to be informed of new things.” It’s plain on this album that Groves desires to re-awaken his listeners to the heart of the gospel, and his ministry focus on this set of songs is refreshing.
I can’t get enough of Shaun’s emotional ballad “I’ve Got You” where he lays out his need for Jesus similar to “Here I Am” and “Need You More,” two of my favorite prayer-songs by Shaun. “Enough” speaks to the tension of living in plenty after witnessing poverty with these great lyrics—“Please don’t give me wealth or poverty, but God I only ask for enough.” “No Better” is a humble song of confession set to a surprising banjo melody. “Down Here” is the stand-out “gourmet” song on the album and identifies the need for social justice in the here and now with Shaun emotionally singing “What in this life ain’t passing? Big deals and beggars end in ashes, all go from cradle to casket, down here.” The song shifts to the Gospel of salvation—“Up there, The One who has no start and no goodbye, The One who mourns our fall and hears our cry.” The song ends with the merge of our earthly Kingdom of God on earth and our eternity with God in Heaven—“to live with us and die for us, down here” along with a chorus of “Emmanuel, God with us.” I haven’t heard a song that convicting and emotionally stirring since “Blessings” by Laura Story. It is my new all-time favorite song by Shaun Groves. The album ends with a powerful arrangement of the hymn “Just As I Am,” which declares that we are all wounded and in need of the Lamb of God.