The Grammy-nominated, former prodigy instrumentalist, who topped the Billboard New Artist chart with his first album at age 15, stands now as a mature creative force, made more sensitive yet also toughened by life's adventures. He's learned what it means to rise above hard times and to find meaning where chaos seemed to rule.
These insights, and the emotions they unleash, makes Turn Around the pivotal album of Jonny Lang's career to date - a passage that links the triumphs of his past to the promise of his future.
A soul-stirring organ, played by Grammy-winning producer Shannon Sanders, forecasts the surge of music that follows on Turn Around: the stomping funk of "Bump in the Road," the startling climax that closes "The Other Side of the Fence," the electrifying vocal exchanges with Michael McDonald on "Thankful," and on the opposite extreme, the work-gang chant that drives "Turn Around" and the profound intimacy of "Only a Man" ...
Turn Around is all of this and more, a tumble of musical colors that dazzle and soothe. And in the end, they achieve coherence through the meaning that Lang conveys so urgently.
"With this album I want to focus, more than ever before, on my purpose in life," he explains. "I've been so incredibly blessed. My wife and I just had our fifth anniversary. I get to do what I love for a living. But it wasn't so long ago that I was spiraling downward in a lot of ways, until God touched my life and set me on the right track. I feel a huge debt to give glory back to Him for everything He has done for me. It's the least he can do."
That said, Turn Around is not slotted only to listeners who have - or have not - undergone this kind of transformation. It inspires, excites, and gets people on their feet - but it doesn't preach. "I understand that not everybody believes as I do," Lang says, "which is fine. I just want to sing about what's going on in my life and let people make up their own minds about that."
For all the conviction that Lang brings to Turn Around, the album began almost as an afterthought. Lang was in the studio one day with his producer, Ron Fair, who is also president of A&M/Interscope Records. There wasn't anything pressing on the agenda; they were doing routine work on the final stages of Lang's previous record, Long Time Coming. Then, out of the blue, Fair said something completely unexpected.
"He looks at me and goes, `Dude, you need to make a gospel record,'" Lang says, laughing at the recollection. "Now, I hadn't really mentioned much to Ron about that side of my life, but for some reason he knew where I was at. So I thought about it for just a second and said, `Yes, I do.'"
There is plenty of gospel in Turn Around, especially in the choir that riffs through "Thankful" and "It's Not Over." But rustic country ("On That Great Day," with guests Buddy Miller and Sam Bush), Motown funk ("One Person at a Time"), jazzy folk ("My Love Remains"), and other influences flavor this music too. In this varied setting, "gospel" has more to do with the spirit that animates these tracks than any category it might inhabit.
The churchy organ that opens and closes Jonny Lang's fifth album reveals its direction. After 2003's Long Time Coming plunged the once-up-and-coming blues guitarist into more soulful and commercial waters, Turn Around completes the transition. Lang is lyrically direct in his spiritual awakening, and the uplifting if sometimes pedantic lyrics make it clear that any vestiges of the teenaged guitar slinger that knocked out an impressive version of the lascivious "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" on his debut are far in the past. A few short leads aside, Lang shifts into full Stevie Wonder/Prince mode, but unfortunately without the quality material that made those artists' work transcend genre. With vocals that shift from guttural howls to sweet and screaming falsetto on tunes like "Don't Stop (For Anything)" and a penchant for oversinging, he's not aiming for subtlety. But there are some winning melodies here: songs such as "Anything's Possible" and "One Person at a Time" boast catchy choruses in a funkified, gospel-tinged, adult-alternative vein bound to appeal to audiences that lean towards obvious religious references in their music. This is a well crafted, undeniably heartfelt set from Lang, who makes it abundantly clear he feels his destiny is to make the world a better place through Jesus. It's a valid enough objective that doesn't quite connect with Lang's rather heavy-handed lyrics, affected singing, and derivative tunes. --Hal Horowitz
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