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For David Crowder, a prodigal is one who has been lavished upon. Borrowing from the words of Jesus in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Crowder titled his latest solo-album American Prodigal (2016). In a statement on the album and its inspiration from the biblical parable, Crowder wrote: “At the very beginning of the story, which may be the most puissant, the father bestows his inheritance on both of his sons. Both are lavished upon by the father.” He admits his similarity to the story’s sons: as a white man living in America, he “knows what it means to be lavished upon.”

The question that arose for Crowder, and the one that catalyzed the making of the record: how to properly respond to his prodigal-ness in the face of the divisiveness of American culture. His answer: make a record that attempts to illustrate the prodigal-ness of every human being. He said, “This music and the language of it is trying to say you’re all loved by God.” This love, he believes, is enough to span any divide economic, racial, cultural, even that of life and death.

His message and hope for the record: “Grace works on us all just the same. Love works on us all just the same. Freedom works on us all just the same. There’s only one definitive line and that’s the one between death and life. These songs are about that divide spanned on our behalf and I pray they are subversive and healing in their insistence of that reality.”

The spanning of that life-death divide is thematically constant throughout American Prodigal. The front half of the record speaks to the death component by depicting the troubles of human life—moral pitfalls, loneliness, helplessness—as represented lyrically by the “devil,” a figure in symbolic yet perpetual pursuit of the songs’ protagonist. “Keep Me” illustrates the “devil” struggle and a call for renewed life:

“That devil keep calling, calling me back O Lord I'm crying, I need Your help Keep me from trouble keep me from hell Lord keep me walkin', walkin', walkin', Lord keep me”

“My Victory” seems to be an answer to this cry, an interjection of life. Literally, an instrument of death is said to have become an instrument of death’s defeat:

“Oh, Your love bled for me Oh, Your blood in crimson streams Oh, Your death is hell's defeat
A cross meant to kill is my victory”

Not until “Shouting Grounds,” though, does the death-life span feel completely realized. The prodigal-ness, or lavishness, of divine grace is recognized earlier, but here it is celebrated. The song conveys an actual out-of-the-grave resurrection, followed by a gathering of sorts at “the shouting ground,” where the jubilation is promised to get quite loud:

“Dead man come walkin' out
When you hear the sound of mercy
Dead man come shouting out
Get out the ground you're breathing!
All who were once asleep are waking up to sing
Take me to the shouting grounds A prodigal lost was found

I should be dead right now But I am alive”

American Prodigal, primarily, focuses upon the journey of an individual from sin and struggle to a renewed life, strongly emphasizing the culminating point of new life and eternal celebration in Heaven. But the consequences of sin are not just personal; its effects are societal and systematic in scope. K.B.’s verse on “Prove It” bears witness to the interpersonal repercussions of sin, thus complicating the record’s narrative:

And ends:

“If freedom is free as they say it is Where we go where they displayin' it?”
“We integrated we be interracial,

You lovin' your neighbors then go let 'em know!”

K.B.’s lyrics question the allotment of freedoms to different groups of people. Those who have had the life-death divide spanned, as the record depicts, but have yet to engage in the work of spanning human-made social divides as an act of right response, are called into question. K.B.’s words bring the social and political into the realm of the theological, expanding the redemptive scope of album’s narrative beyond the personal overcoming of “the devil.”

All in all, American Prodigal calls attention to the life-death divide that pervades human experience—the struggle against death and the lavish gift of renewed life. It also asks an important question that ought to stay with listeners: How might we each respond best to the prodigal-ness of our particular experiences?

—Daniel Hickey

October 2017
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