Superior Sophomore

Second Hand Clothing (Forefront Records)

By Victoria Moon

Eli's 1998 debut release, Things I Prayed For, showcased a budding songwriter with an unusual, distinctive voice and a great deal of potential. Unfortunately, in the slightly bizarre world of contemporary Christian music, this often doesn't mean much, as artists rise to prominence and fall again about as often as I take a breath.

In the case of Eli, however, his songwriting potential positively blooms on his sophomore release, Second Hand Clothing. While the title cut was easily the strongest song he wrote on his debut, yet still needed the balance of stronger songwriters like Cat Stevens, Bob and Lisa Halligan, and Rick Cua (a CCM oldie but goodie), Second Hand Clothing is all Eli, and shows that he's been working hard this past year to develop his bittersweet, confessional songwriting style and imbue his songs with an emotional depth not often seen in Christian or secular music.

My favorite cut on this release is "Second Hand Clothing, Part I," a startlingly honest look at his relationship with his absent father. It is safe to say, I think, that no one in CCM has ever dealt with this issue as openly as Eli does here, and certainly it has never been dealt with as well.

Throughout the album he continues to balance his often very human emotions with his faith. The refreshing thing about this album is that he allows his humanity to shine through his songs, admitting that despite his beliefs he still feels things like resentment, anger, bitterness, fear and pride. In "Unqualified," he admits "I have stolen, I have cheated, I have lied/I am prideful and unqualified/I am broken when I realize/It's God's grace/God's grace that covers me."

In songs like "Brother" and "Second Hand Clothing, Part II," he addresses the issue of acceptance, and how Christians should react to those qualified as different or misfit - a very needful message in a time when the Christian message often seems to be something quite the opposite.

His musical style is still well within the acoustic folk tradition, and it is a relief that he avoids much of the over-production CCM is famous for. While the songs are touched with a pop sensibility, it avoids the too-slick perfection from which many Christian releases suffer. Only "Second Hand Clothing, Part II" comes across as slightly jarring in its funked-up introduction, although it quickly settles into an acoustic rhythm better suited to this album.

In Second Hand Clothing Eli also reveals himself not only as a much stronger songwriter but as a more powerful vocalist. His distinctive, wild-child, raspy voice seems more controlled and rife with an emotional maturity missing from his last disc and a very welcome discovery here.

In all, Second Hand Clothing is a collection of 12 excellent songs from an excellent songwriter, and shows a balance between reality and Heaven for which CCM has been crying for a very long time.