‘Illuminations’ – a light from a higher window

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By Kate Dowd – Contributor

Last Monday morning saw two hours of sleep and a big psychology test. All of these stresses suddenly seemed distant and unimportant when I ventured out into a mild November morning to buy a copy of Josh Groban’s fifth studio album, “Illuminations.”

After losing the battle with Walmart employees, I drove to Target to wait for their doors to open. The employees were a bit perplexed when I ran up and ask for the new Josh Groban album at 8:02 a.m., as they’re used to putting new music out on Tuesdays. But I knew they have it, and I waited, clutching my latte until they found it and placed it in my welcoming hands.

Four years after the release of his platinum-certified album “Awake,” I was ready for new music, and Mr. Groban did not let me down.

Groban is usually known for his deep, smooth voice crooning operatic tunes in Italian, Spanish or French, and while there are a few of those usual suspects, he manages to make them uniquely him.

“Illuminations” takes off the path that Groban fans are accustomed, and down a road of autumn foliage, laughing hearts and crisp breezes as a crimson sunrise waits along the horizon. It is a soft, warm glance into an entirely different realm of sounds, but it also maintains a sense of familiarity with an immense ability to conjure up memories you thought were long gone.

Groban wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on the album and leaves me wondering why he hasn’t written more, and what kind of grassroots organizing I can do to make it happen more often.

The album begins with an instrumental prelude, “The Wandering Kind,” through which it seems as if Groban is smiling coyly at you before he takes your hand and leads you on a new path. If the album were a relationship, this would be the giddy courtship with feelings of uncertainty growing and fading, all the while knowing and trusting that this new adventure will be well worth it. In fact, Groban does take his listener on a far-away adventure, with songs such as “Bells of New York City” and “London Hymn,” with magical narrations of cities that many of his listeners have not seen, heard or touched. They come alive suddenly, and it’s as if you’re standing next to your guide, taking in the sights and sounds of a foreign city.

Groban is careful in taking us on this journey. He includes some songs in Italian, Portuguese and French so as not to lead us too far away from what we’ve become accustomed to. “L’Ora Dell’Addio” is a worthy tribute to his previous works; with strings and a powerful orchestra to back his magnificent vocals, he proves he still has the ability to melt even the coldest of hearts. “Voce Existe Em Mim” is Groban’s first song in Portuguese, and the drums and quick beats make it a great hip-swaying and foot-tapping song. I’ve often found myself bobbing my head and drumming my fingers on my steering wheel as I drive around town.  

The third song on the album, “Galileo (Someone Like You),” a cover, is a playful tune about one of the greatest scientific minds dealing with the one thing he hasn’t figured out: love. It shows that though you think you have everything figured out, even the greatest minds have trouble defining something as erratic and unpredictable as love.  

Some of the gems written by Groban include “Hidden Away,” “Higher Window,” “If I Walk Away” and “War at Home.” Each one as powerful and emotional as the next, Groban once again surprises us with his intricate storytelling and ambiguous and open-for-your-own-interpretation lyrics.

“Hidden Away” and “Higher Window” are strong ballads dealing with the confusion and desperation one finds when the future of a relationship is unclear and love is uncertain or up in the air.

“If I Walk Away” has an almost folksy sound, with guitars  in the background as the song builds into a polite plea for company through what one can assume to be a another chapter in this exciting journey.

“War at Home” is a powerful, gut-wrenching ballad that empowers, encourages and strengthens the listener. Beginning with ominous horns, the song tapers off into a soft, somber glimpse into the lives of soldiers dealing with internal struggles. As light drumming in the background picks up, Groban’s voice passionately captures the desperation many face in the midst of a major struggle. He builds the listener up with encouragement and support as he croons: “Through the void of the silence, you are not alone.”

Groban has captured so many profound emotions with “Illuminations,” you can’t help but trust him and look forward to future journeys with a fantastic artist.  

Album rating: 5 stars

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