CD Review: Never Walk Alone (Brian Free & Assurance)

When Brian Free & Assurance’s released their previous mainline album, Worth It, I spoke highly of the song “Die Another Day.” I was criticized for this, as it’s no secret that I have a strong personal preference for the traditional and orchestral portions of the Southern Gospel spectrum. But its insightful and theologically solid lyrics makes it first-rate, no matter what instruments are on its soundtrack.

Never Walk Alone is an album full of “Die Another Days.”

Brian Free & Assurance turned to an all-star cast of songwriters, drawing upon some of their most theologically sound and lyrically intriguing work yet. Song after song is filled with well-crafted, thought-provoking references to Noah, Abraham, Thomas, Abraham, and Noah. The songs individually would be enough to merit the project a 4 or 4.5 star rating, but they do not stand alone.

These Old Testament references counterbalance a sometime tendency in our genre to draw from the riches of the New Testament to the exclusion of the Old, and give the project an overarching theme (or, if you prefer, an underlying motif). Some background is in order: Never Walk Alone was recorded as Brian Free’s father was passing away, and as bass singer Jeremy Lile was walking through the grief of losing his father the previous year. The title track sums up the song’s theme; Free is featured on this tastefully soothing, gentle song that looks at Christ’s suffering as a reminder that we never walk alone.

The songs on the project are unified around this theme, this reminder that we never walk alone. The first three songs draw deeply from familiar and obscure Old Testament references, reminding us of the trials and triumphs of our heroes of the faith. “The Part Where You Come In,” the project’s fourth strong and one of its strongest, pivots to a two-song focus on salvation. “It’s My Life,” song six, is a biographical narrative about the group’s calling to share the Gospel, and their reasons for being on the road. Song seven (“Turn the Page”) revisits the heroes of the Old Testament, while song eight (“Stand Among the Millions”) moves to the other end of the story, the first gathering of all the redeemed of the ages. Song nine is the only song that doesn’t really fit the story-song format—”story-songs,” as used here, referring to true stories of those who have walked before us; Never Walk Alone, to its credit, generally if not totally eschews the fictional accounts so in vogue today. The closing track is the penultimate conclusion that ties the narrative together, these reminders that we “Never Walk Alone.”

Reviewers have given several of Brian Free & Assurance’s most recent projects a lukewarm reception, and with good reason; overcompressed vocals and soundtracks that were a little too edgy for the genre made them good but not great. But with Never Walk Alone, the group took the characteristics that made their strong songs strong, and filled an album with tracks of the highest lyrical caliber. These songs are not merely individual works of art; they stand together to tell a story. This theme has likely never been developed with this cohesiveness of narrative or clarity of execution on any previous Southern Gospel recording—and thus ranks this five-star album high on the list of must-purchase Southern Gospel albums of 2010.

Produced by: Ricky Free. • Group Members: Brian Free, Bill Shivers, Derrick Selph, Jeremy Lile. • Review copy provided. • Song list: Anything is Possible (Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, Tony Wood); I Believe (Lee Black, Kenna Turner West); God Will Close the Door (Kenna Turner West, Sue C. Smith, Simon Hawkins); The Part Where You Come In (Ricky Free, Sue C. Smith); Remind Me of the Cross (Kenna Turner West, Jason Cox); It’s My Life (Marty Funderburk, Gina Boe); Turn the Page (Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, Tony Wood); Stand Among the Millions (Jim Brady, Barry Weeks, Tony Wood); It’s Gotta Be God (Marty Funderburk, Kelly Garner); Never Walk Alone (J.P. Williams, Jeremy Johnson). • Average song rating: 4.1 stars. CD rating: 5 stars.