Angels of Mercy
Susan Ashton

By Kelvin Bailey

Without a doubt, one of the biggest events in Christian music recently was the release of the new project by Kentucky native Stephen Curtis Chapman, and rightfully so -- a major new release by an artist who has established himself as a favorite with critics and fans, everybody's favorite boy wonder deserves a little hoopla. However, in the midst of all the publicity and plaudits over The Great Adventure, it has been far too easy to miss what may be the best release so far this year, Angels of MercyBy Susan Ashton.

What is it about Susan Ashton that is so appealing? Is it her sweet, unobtrusive alto voice? Her ability to deliver some of the hardest-hitting lyrics in Christian music with gentle sincerity? The layered folk-pop sound that has become her musical mainstay? Or her quiet, gentle, down-home and at the same time exciting and urgent personality that shines through her music and personal appearances? The answer is -- Yes! All this and more. The time has definitely come for this incredibly gifted musician who is blazing a trail alongside Mr. Chapman that many will seek to travel.

Choosing a few favorite cuts on Angels of Mercy is an incredibly difficult task, one I probably shouldn't undertake. This is a distinctive, mature album with ten very strong songs -- no throwaway cuts here. However, the first song to really grab my attention was the slightly country-flavored "Grand Canyon."

Lyrically, this is a piece that describes a spiritual state in which a believer separates himself from God by allowing idleness, doubt, and even coldness to settle in and create a chasm that Susan refers to as the "Grand Canyon" between us and God. Although this song doesn't offer any pat solutions to this problem, it so effectively describes this state of being that it encourages us to not be satisfied until we are once again "as close as His shadow."?"Grand Canyon" introduces us to the incredibly effective use of strings woven throughout Angels of Mercy. Remember those sweeping, panoramic cinema shots taken from a helicopter flying over the Grand Canyon or other such natural wonders? The orchestral interlude here is the exact kind of sweeping music you'd expect to underscore those shots. And, for once, the cliche works perfectly.

This effective use of strings carries over into the next song, "Better Angels of Our Nature," a passionate appeal for justice, both personal and corporate, that helps solidify Wayne Kirkpatrick as one of the all-time great Christian songwriters.

Beginning with a first-person account, Susan uses her lessons learned to challenge the listener to minister to others the grace God so freely blesses us with:

Let the gavel fall slowly tho' the truth's

been revealed

Sequester the jury for a moment to feel

In the courts of compassion I hope we

can appeal

To the better angels of our nature.

Two cuts nestled in the middle of Angels of Mercy serve to make this album more than a little convicting. Although Susan Ashton is ever gentle and never preachy, "Started as a Whisper" and "Alice in Wonderland" are songs which depict Christians who fail to show Christ's love in two very different situations. "Started as a Whisper" tells the story of a young, unmarried, mother-to-be who enters a church "cause all she wanted was a little comfort there." Unfortunately, what she encounters is coldness, judgment, and one of Satan's favorite tools -- rumors. As is usually the case, the young girl gathers up her coat and what's left of her dignity and heads out the door, rejected once more by those who should be the first to show her compassion.

Not a lot is left to be said in "Started as a Whisper." "Alice in Wonderland," on the other hand, is somewhat less obvious in its approach. Through masterful use of imagery and metaphor, this song paints a picture of Alice, a girl to whom Christianity is all a matter of black-and-white (or yellow-and-green in this song). Quick to question those whose lives aren't perfect, Alice becomes the symbol of too many who believe that heartaches, failure, and troubles are visited only upon those who have no faith or who haven't learned to push the right spiritual buttons. The challenges here are in knowing that "it's cold to sing songs to a troubled heart," and in "learning to live with the mystery of things."

As time goes by, one of the favorite songs from Angels of Mercy will undoubtedly be "When Are You Coming Back." Thematically reminiscent of the old spirituals, this song tells of people who could easily be singing "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," but are instead anticipating the return of their Saviour. Musically, "When Are You Coming Back" is what one would expect: basic blues-rock with a light country flavor. In stark contrast to the gentleness of "Alice in Wonderland," Susan demonstrates here her ability to deliver passionate vocals with just the right touch of soulful grit to establish her as a truly versatile vocalist.

Angels of Mercy may not be the biggest-selling release of 1992, but it will definitely be one of the best, and probably one of the most critically acclaimed, not unlike last year's Wakened By the Wind. If you're not convinced, catch Susan Ashton as she opens for Stephen Curtis Chapman on September 15 at Memorial Auditorium. You'll be sold on Susan, and I can say "I told you so."

(Kelvin Bailey is Music Buyer, The Wellspring Christian Book Center.)