Fair Trade Services
Release Date: August 27th 2021
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Standing at the Edge of My World
- Follow You Into the Fire
- All Together
- Glory I Couldn’t See
- Glory Reprise
- From the Start
- Something That I Can’t Explain
- Breathe In, Breathe Out
- Unity Hymn
Tenth Avenue North has officially disbanded. Yes, you heard me right. It was in this year of 2020, where the band decided to part ways with each other, and shortly after the release of their successful 2019 album No Shame, Mike Donehey and co. decided to hang up the boots, after a successful career under Provident Label Group and ushering into existence 6 studio albums of goodness and heart; of poignancy and emotion, reminding us of the sheer grace of God and His mercy through these melodies we have been given throughout the years. The band have pressed the envelope and stretched the boundaries of what it means to be honest and vulnerable. Sadly, the CCM industry is like any other- one that, just like the mainstream industry, is plagued with a lack of honesty that should really be present. A stigma is attached to the word ‘honesty’ and ‘vulnerability’ in music, and thus, a band like Tenth Avenue North, who in their music, has challenged all those assumptions, is well deserving of having a career in music as they have had, all these years; a career that has brought something new, interesting, heartfelt, challenging, and transformational, to the discussion of what music means for people today. Sure, Tenth Avenue North aren’t popular by ‘mainstream music’ means. But the band itself has never really cared about that- carving out a career more focused on songs being used as vehicles of honesty as we traverse this sometimes chaotic and difficult life, rather than songs just being a way to escape it. Now years upon years after their debut album Over and Underneath; the band have since parted ways. It was in the latter part of 2020 where the only two remaining members left, lead singer Mike Donehey and guitarist Jeff Owen, got a bunch of friends together and unveiled to us an acoustic album featuring 10 songs of their best and most highly requested, as a swansong of sorts before both these men moved onto other opportunities, either in the realms of music or elsewhere. I reviewed the acoustic best-of album here, which featured standout songs like ‘Control’, ‘I Have This Hope’, ‘You are More’, and more recently their radio hit ‘Greater Than All My Regrets’. Now at the turn of 2021, Mike Donehey unveiled to us his first solo material since the band split-up in the form of 2 EP’s- Work of Art and A Father and Two Sons. A few months on from that, Mike signed a record deal with Fair Trade Services, and with that, has released his ‘debut’ label-backed album as a solo artist- Flourish.
‘…of all the days to release this, it just so happened, August 27th is my mom’s birthday. The woman who first carried me and care for me and in whose womb I first learned what it was to flourish. “The womb tree” is what we siblings sometimes jokingly call her. I know it sounds disrespectful. I assure you. It isn’t meant to be. My mom turns 70 today and I cannot think of a better gift to give her than this record. See, my mom delights in me. Annoyingly so. As a kid, she held me back to start K5 because “she wasn’t ready for me to leave.” As a teenager, she always wanted my friends to stay over at our house. In my twenties, she was always reprimanding me for not calling more often. And now as a full-on adult, at the end of every visit she’s already bemoaning the fact that it will be too long til the next time we see each other. “Mom. We’re here together now. Let’s enjoy it!” I scold her, but not too sharply. Because you know, she complains for wanting me close. And yet…
She always told me to dream. She always kept sending me out. She never blinked when I went to college for theatre, and never flinched when I said I was traveling around the country in a van playing for youth groups and eating bologna sandwiches. With Tenth Avenue North closing a chapter and this new journey opening up before me, I struggled intensely with the thought that my best was behind me. I still do many days. But some of you precious souls assured me that wasn’t the case when you so generously funded the Kickstarter and sent message after message encouraging me to keep going. But I have to say, my mom beat you to it.
Of any “fan” I’ve ever made, she was there long before, cheering me on. So, the courage to keep putting myself out there, to keep creating, keep dreaming, keep hoping and writing. Well, it all started with my mother’s simple delight. To this day, there’s a way her eyes light up when I simply walk into a room. Amidst all the trouble in the world, the chaos, the death, and all the trembling in the wake of the fall. I simply pray you have a mom like mom. Who keep you believing that your best is always ahead of you, because it has to be! Love you mom. I wrote some new songs for your birthday. I hope you like ‘em…’
The first radio single to be released from Flourish way back in May 2021, ‘All Together’ is a tad over 3 minutes, and yet the lyrics and message to this song is anything but ‘short’. For what has been packed into this 3 minute on-the-surface pop-diddy is something to be behold of, as Mike continues to prove to the fact that he’s one of the most undervalued and vulnerable songwriters out there, in both CCM and mainstream. The song is about not having things all together, and not trying to be the ‘perfect’ church, but rather, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to welcome people who are different from yourself, into the Fathers house, where grace flows abundantly from our Heavenly Father; to people who desperately need grace in their lives, even if they don’t know it…yet. As Mike himself unveils about the story behind the song, we see that ‘…there is something sacred that happens when addicts get together in a recovery circle. They know they will be met with 100% acceptance, therefore can be totally vulnerable. ‘All Together’ encourages people not only to take that first step towards vulnerability but also to participate in radical acceptance of those who do. Many of us can’t imagine confession being a beautiful thing because when we’ve tried it, we’ve been met with shame or hatred. James 5:16 says, therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. 1 John says that if we confess our sins to Him, He forgives us, but confess to each other to be healed. What if we prepared ourselves so that when someone comes to us with a confession, we don’t interrogate them? What if instead we meet them with grace, be a safe shelter and set each other free as part of each other’s healing?…’ And it is in this quote above that I’ve seen how ‘All Together’ can be a song of hope and healing as Mike continues to power through post-Tenth Avenue North, to become a solo artist whose music is still needed in a CCM society that unfortunately doesn’t seem to tackle a lot of the difficult things that Tenth Avenue North the band (and Mike the solo artist) have been discussing for years upon end. So it is in this light, that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this song (and everything else on Flourish), as I’m reminded of how much Mike’s music- both his 2 EP’s released previously, and now his new album (as well as this time with Tenth Avenue North), has impacted my own spiritual life this past 10 years or so. Well done Mike for ‘All Together’, a song that calls us all to be as open and honest as we can in a society where we can be forced to wear masquerades and masks, for whatever reason there is.
Throughout the rest of the album, Mike brings to the fore topics and themes into the frame of discussion that remind us just how good of a songwriter that Mike really is, as we fully understand the reasons why Tenth Avenue North was in fact one of CCM’s shining lights when they were around. ‘Glory I Couldn’t See’ is the second song to release (after ‘All Together’) from Flourish around a month (alongside another pre-release track ‘Unity Hymn’), and together alongside ‘All Together’, form the backbone of the album musically, lyrically, and stylistically. A song that has become one of my favourites from the album Flourish, ‘Glory I Couldn’t See’ is a track that reminds us all to see the beauty and the wonder in the little things in life, to never get too busy with life’s accomplishments that we miss the joys that happen all around us. Coupled with a music video of the song where Mike himself is singing the track amidst scenes of him interacting with his family, we see that often in our lives, we can amass glory, reputation and status, to have it show us that we are chasing the wind, not focusing on sunrises, sunsets, and time with family, but focusing on being ‘…busy, been making plans, I have a way of living in my head…I’m outside looking in, but I’m waking up, I’ve lost too much, I’m waking up…’ At the end of the day, we can have all this stuff, but if we miss the moments with our family and trade it all in for our five minutes at the top, then what we have gains ought not to have mattered in the first place, and this song by Mike can hopefully convey this thought. As Mike himself puts it, ‘…I called the album Flourish after a song I wrote early on in the pandemic last year. I wanted to raise my fist and raise my voice in sharp defiance of my circumstances. I wanted to remind my heart that true flourishing isn’t external but internal. I wanted to remind myself that though heaven and earth gives way, Christ remains the strength of my heart and my portion forever. I cannot wait for you to hear all 11 songs on this album, due to release August 27, 2021. The song that releases today, Glory I Couldn’t See, is about the moment I realized I was playing the victim. Angry and sad over cancelled tours and plans, I sat down to write this song with my friends Andrew and Chris. From the first line I started to cry. I knew we were on to something special. As it turns out, this song became my anthem for months. I’m ecstatic to finally share it with all of you. I pray it serves as a cry to not let the valuable lessons we learned in 2020 to be lost as we rush back into “normalcy” in 2021…’
The last song on Flourish and the last ‘pre-release’ song from the album, we see Mike try his hand out at delivering a modern-hymn if you will, and what has resulted is this song called ‘Unity Hymn’, indeed a modern 21st century ‘hymn’, a track that I reckon will have as much pull and impact as other modern hymns, from ‘King of Kings’, ‘Living Hope’, ‘10000 Reasons’ and ‘Cornerstone’, to ‘At the Cross (Love Ran Red)’, ‘Death Was Arrested’, ‘Man of Sorrows’ and ‘In Christ Alone’. I mean, maybe ‘Unity Hymn’ won’t have the same impact and pull as all these aforementioned songs, but maybe as a few years go by, this song can come agonisingly close. Because as I hear it, Mike’s attempt at creating a song that is very-much hymn-like, is something that is impressive and awe-inspiring, a moment of lyrical genius as this under-rated songwriter delivers a song that is catchy as it is biblically sound. A song that allows us to declare (alongside Mike) that ‘…Christ is with us, in Him we live, and move, and breathe, so with this breath inside our lungs now and forever we will sing…’; ‘Unity Hymn’ is a great way to end by an artist that has made CCM all the more interesting and worth-while, through his tenure in the industry in both a solo and a band capacity. Or as Mike himself divulges, ‘…I wrote this song with my sister after she heard the chorus melody in a dream. She called me up and said, “I think we are supposed to write this song together.” She came over and sitting at my piano, we wrote the rest of the song in fifteen minutes. I remember it was raining outside, and I thought, “Man, God you just rained down a gift of a song on us just now.” The words of this song are incredibly important to me as I long to see the church unified in the way Jesus prayed in John 17. I hope it blesses you as much as it has blessed me…may “Unity Hymn” convict and inspire you to see greater unity in your relationships and in the greater church communities we are a part of. We’re all on the same team after all…’
Flourish the album is a great experience, one that has reminded myself of how gifted Mike Donehey has been all these years, and while his solo career may not get the same amount of traction and popularity as Tenth Avenue North before it, he still nevertheless ploughs on. His ‘debut’ album is just as thoughtful as any of his previous Tenth Avenue North material…which may be one of the reasons why this album may not necessarily be as impactful as Mike’s previous band. Because Flourish has many comparions to Tenth Avenue North, people who listen to this new album once through, may just jump back and listen to Tenth Avenue North on repeat…which isn’t necsarily a bad thing, but I guess if you want people to become more curious with what you’re delivering now, it shouldn’t necessarily be that similar to the music that you produced before- which is what Flourish is! No matter how unintended Mike has made the album with such a similarity. It does sound like a Tenth Avenue North album. And maybe that’ll work for Mike, maybe it won’t. Unfortunately, even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this album from top to bottom, the major musical similarities between this and Mike’s previous band, may only make people miss TAN even more, and will be more inclined to listen to more of Mike’s band, than Mike’s music going forward. Regardless, Flourish is a great album, and even if people may not take up this album than they could’ve, doesn’t negate the fact that Mike’s ability to write songs that delve deep into the human soul, has been nurtured over the years, and his ability displayed in this album is no different.
‘Standing at the Edge of My World’ is the first song on Flourish, and by first song, means that this track must make good on first impression, otherwise someone listening may divert their attention and listen to another album instead. From first note, this song has kept me engaged all the way through, as powerful guitars form the backbone of this anthem, one that reminds us all, that we all have difficulties and things that hold us back, our own personal demons if you will. We can become crippled inside, and as the song suggests, standing at the edge of our worlds. We look far beyond what we know, to what is possible and the unknown, and we’re afraid to take a step, because of what may hold us back- unforgiveness, bitterness, comparison. But sometimes what can hold us back from what God has intended for us, isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all- it’s just that what can keep our feet firmly planted and never moving, can be something called familiarity and comfortableness, things that in and of themselves aren’t ‘bad’, but when they allow for mediocrity and us settling for something that God may not have intended for us, that is when we have become too comfortable for our own good. ‘Follow You Into the Fire’ feels like it could be something heard on the radio, and with it’s radio-friendly nature, allows for the song’s message to shine through all the more. It’s gang vocals and prominent keyboard presence allows Mike to present a theme that is all too familiar to us all, but still something that needs to be said time and time again- that we’ll as disciples of Christ, follow Him wherever He calls us, even if it is into the ‘fire’ as we can often see it as being. A song that reminds me of the 2013 Hawk Nelson track ‘Through the Fire’ (a song that is ironically with Mike Donehey) (and how that track also speaks about how we go through the fire and experience pain and difficulties in order for us to have empathy for our fellow man, and also for us to exercise obedience and follow into situations not knowing everything, because we know Christ goes with us into them too!); ‘Follow You Into the Fire’ alludes to the story about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and how they would follow God, and in their case, directly into the fire.
Title track ‘Flourish’ speaks about how we can flourish and become better people, in spite of difficulty happening and circumstances happening that aren’t in our favour, as this track really ties into the theme of the album as a whole. Sometimes we can see the hopelessness of our situations, and really get bogged down in thinking that God can never use something so ______, when in fact, it has been the unsettling of times can can be the most humbling, and we can indeed flourish in such circumstances, as we allow ourselves to rely on the Lord for the things we have. Or as the lyrics suggest plainly, that ‘…You told me You’re all I need to cling to, strength to stand against the strongest winds, and You’re making rivers in the wasteland, but will I really never thirst again?…’ Mike dives into this concept of flourishing a little deeper with his next song ‘Abundance’; and speaks about how we can have an abundance in Christ and all that He gives to us in a spiritual sense, as opposed to having abundance in the material things we long to have on this side of eternity. Having abundance doesn’t necessarily mean that we have access to an excess of material things, but it is a way of living- as though we believe that God will supply our needs, even if it may look like what we have isn’t ideal and that our physical state of being doesn’t cry from the outset ‘rich’.
‘From the Start’ is an upbeat feet-stomper as Mike relays to us this truth of how much Christ has loved us from the start, and that sometimes we can forget how much God really loves us because of all our worries and troubles, or even because of our successes and celebrations. Because frankly, when we’re in our high points, how much do we really thank God for those high positions? I’m sure a lot less communicating between us and God when we’re going good compared to when we’re crying out in desperation when we’re at the end of our rope! The album then rounds out with the songs ‘Something I Can’t Explain’ and ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’; the former (‘Something I Can’t Explain’) is a song about allowing God to show us things that we know we can’t explain from a scientific point of view, so that we can know a little more about the God that is far more capable and far more expansive than we can ever believe; and the latter (‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’) is a way of reminding us all that God has been with us all the while, and us breathing in God’s presence and His unending love, and breathing out the worries and doubts, is just a physical reminder that as Christ comes and transforms our lives from the inside out, that He is the one that expels all the things that keep us paralysed- that there’s nothing we can do physically to rid ourselves of these things, except for allowing Christ to invade our innermost spaces that we long to keep for ourselves!
So, there you go…Flourish. Mike’s first album, solo. He has done albums before. And while I can respect Flourish for all that’s worth (and it’s a real good album period), maybe, if you haven’t really heard of Tenth Avenue North (or Mike for that matter), maybe don’t listen to this album first…check out Tenth Avenue North and their discography first before you start listening to Flourish. It’ll make a lot of sense if you do it that way, then the other way around. But let’s be honest and frank- Flourish does sound like every other album that Mike has done in the past. And that may be a good thing or not, but without a doubt, Mike’s new album has been a great experience, for me at least. Maybe even up there with other standout releases this year, like Departures (Jon Foreman), Interrobang (Switchfoot), Into the Mystery (NEEDTOBREATHE), Bridge Over Troubled Dreams (Delta Goodrem), Godsend (Riley Clemmons) and Hymn of Heaven (Phil Wickham). Who knows, maybe Mike’s release will garner an award or two at next year’s Dove Awards? Maybe. Whatever the case, ‘All Together’ is a great song, and Flourish is a great album. Well done Mike for this release, hoping that people are impacted and positively encouraged through these songs, on one of 2021’s most surprising release thus far (in the best way possible!).
3 songs to listen to: Glory I Couldn’t See, Unity Hymn, Follow You Into the Fire
RIYL: Tenth Avenue North, MercyMe, Hawk Nelson, Matthew West