Jennifer Knapp,
Set Me Free
(Righteous Babe, 2014)

Back in the 1990s, Jennifer Knapp set the Christian music world on fire with her album Kansas, which established her as one of the most creative, unusual and talented artists in that genre. She put out several more acclaimed albums and then, at the height of her popularity, disappeared for seven years.

At the peak of her fame, she simply quit.

In 2010, she broke her silence, returning to writing and recording, but with a difference. Now, instead of a Christian label, she was on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe records, and instead of directly Christian music, she was writing deeply spiritual but secular songs. And the public finally found out what that seven-year absence was about when she came out as a lesbian.

Now, finally free to be who she was, Knapp returned to her art and resumed performing. The current result of all the soul-searching and struggle she went through is her brilliant new album, Set Me Free, a record solidly in the Americana camp, a record that is spiritual without being necessarily religious. Its theme is announced in the title; the songs are mostly about the effort it takes to be yourself, to find and accept your own identity.

Knapp has always been known for her writing. From the beginning, rather than follow the lead of other Christian artists and writing standard praise songs, she would take on the doubts, the struggle and the costs of living the religious life. While others celebrated the pleasures, Knapp celebrated the difficulties. In the songs that make up Set Me Free, she still writes about the questionable choices we make, as in "Mercy's Tree."

Should we take and never ask why?
huddled in masses
we sit on our asses
and hold to what we should let fly
what good is the
giving of a life for a lie?

"Remedy" is about what it took to get out of life her Kansas upbringing prescribed for her so that she could find her true way.

In my blood the sun of a Kansas sky
turns the flat hills gold
and burns them dry
o, the road I had to take
to make good my escape.

Set Me Free is a deeply personal album, one woman's testament to the roads she's traveled in becoming herself. The fact is, though, it's also a universal album. Our own journeys might differ in the details from Jennifer Knapp's but we've all gone through the same sort of struggles she transforms, like an alchemist, into gold on this record.

Knapp's vocals are stronger than ever. Always a fine singer, now the acquisition of new life experiences has deepened and strengthened her voice. It is more flexible and more expressive than it was before her seven-year sabbatical. On this record, she has surrounded herself with fine musicians and, with the help of producer Jacob Lawson, has come up with arrangements that fit the songs the way driving gloves fit the hands.

In all, Set Me Free should have a place on everyone's shelf. Or better yet, in all of our playback devices.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

30 May 2015

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