The Gray Havens
The Gray Havens
When your band is named after Tolkien’s mythical seaport where ships sail away to a far country, listeners know to expect something a little different, perhaps even something with glimpses of eternity.
That’s the sort of music The Gray Havens have been making since 2013. Husband and wife duo, Dave and Licia Radford, craft songs that take on the structure of a story, sometimes epic and metaphorical, other times profound in their simplicity. Those glimpses of eternity shine in rich musical compositions, lyrical imagery, and the smallest enchanting detail that can make a song transcendent.
Those same glimpses of eternity inspired The Gray Havens’ fourth studio release, 2018’s She Waits. Dave recalls, “One day I told Licia, ‘I think I want to write a Heaven record.” With that daunting goal, the band set out on what would become the most difficult songwriting journey they’ve ever faced. “Making this record was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done creatively (maybe period),” Dave confesses. “The lyrics were far from finished going into the studio, and we were hoping that I’d be able to keep pace with recording by day and finishing lyrics by night. That didn’t happen.”
It is no small task to write a Heaven record: to characterize that contrast between the temporal and eternal, the tangible groaning of creation waiting for rebirth, the believer’s hope for promised redemption, and the very nature of glory. Dave’s studio became a sea of scattered papers with unfinished lyrics. He leaned on cowriters, and on producer Ben Shive. He suffered through vocal issues just before it was time to record. And in the struggle, in the forge, the band persevered. The result is nothing short of a triumph.
“I feel like God was telling us that it was supposed to be that way, that the challenges were there for a reason,” Licia reflects. “This record was prayed over more than any other because of the struggle.”
She Waits chronicles a band at their apex, stretching their sound in new directions while they maintain the song-craft that so distinguishes them. The vivid imagery is here, along with the symbolism and epic scale, but never before has it all resonated so personally. These songs don’t just take the listener on a journey, they meet each listener face to face, declaring, “I know where you are right now, and I know there’s something better, and here’s a taste of it.”
The title track opens the album with Dave’s vocals in a low-register portending the longing of shackled creation. By the falsetto chorus, we’ve pondered the history of the earth and what a new one might look like. The hope is unresolved, but the promise is steadfast, and the song deftly bonds the story of creation to the story of the created. “Creation’s story of redemption is directly tied to the redemption and glorification of the sons of God,” Dave says. Right out of the gate, the album manages to take topics as vast as heaven and earth and place them within the story of God’s people.
Next, a bright, driving piano leads us a step beyond that groaning earth. “See You Again” is the happiest funeral song you’ll ever hear. The narrator contrasts his name etched on a tombstone with the promised new name written on a white stone in eternity (Rev. 2:17), and shares with joy his desire to meet his love on the other side of the veil.
The piano playing that undergirds “See You Again” actually anchors the whole album. It’s a contrast from the last album, and a marker of the band’s versatility. “Perhaps the biggest musical difference between our Ghost of a King album and the new She Waits album is the lead instrument changed from acoustic guitar to piano,” Dave says. “Ghost of a King was written primarily on acoustic guitar. All of She Waits was written on piano. Maybe because of that, or because of the subject matter, She Waits feels more hopeful.”
Standout single, “High Enough” reminds us that we cannot attain that hope and that heaven on our own. As Dave describes, “Adam and Eve had everything, but believed the lie that something more could be found. That cycle repeats over and over again.” The song features hip hop artist, Propaganda, on a rhyme that perfectly captures the futility of man’s desire to count himself sufficient. Ben Shive’s sterling production features grinding strings and clacking loops, and we feel the tension in the bow even as we reflect on our own vanity and pride.
Contrast “High Enough” with songs of bright hope, like “Gone are the Days” and “Forever,” and the redemption found in “Storehouse,” and it becomes apparent just how well the album spans the “now” and the “yet to come.” Following his initial studies about heaven, Dave recalls, “Everything became more weighty and somber, but also much more hopeful and joy-filled. So I guess you could say this album balances both aspects of this tension during the ‘in-between.'"
And what’s a Gray Havens record about something as mystical as heaven without an epic extended metaphor with layer upon layer of meaning? “Three Birds in Babylon” already has listeners abuzz, debating its symbolism. The song was inspired by several works of C.S. Lewis, and in particular his book The Great Divorce. The titular birds are met with Lewis’s three possible responses to the Gospel, declaring Christ to be liar, lunatic, or Lord. In a dramatic turn, the oncederisive taunt, “Look how she goes, she gave herself away,” becomes not insult but adulation as the listeners are finally met with their own brokenness.
As the penultimate song on She Waits declares, “Forever is in my soul. It’s in my veins.” This album is a bedrock reminder of a promised eternity that will minister to listeners for years to come. It was hard won, but perhaps an album this grand, about a subject even grander, had to be.