Artist: Michael W. Smith
Label: Cracker Barrel
Release Date: 3/25/14
Reviewer: Jonathan Andre
- The Old Rugged Cross
- My Jesus, I Love Thee
- Were You There
- Victory in Jesus
- How Great Thou Art
- Just As I Am
- Near the Cross
- It is Well
- Softly and Tenderly
- When I Surveyed the Wondrous Cross
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- Wonderful Merciful Saviour
- Great is Thy Faithfulness
- God of Our Fathers
- The Lord Bless You and Keep You
‘…I’ve wanted to do an album of hymns for as long as I can remember. When we started talking with Cracker Barrel, I knew it was the right time for this project. I’m really excited about it. These are great, timeless songs that I have always loved to sing…’ Michael W. Smith. Everyone knows him, and his famous songs, like ‘Friends’, ‘Agnus Dei’, ‘Missing Person’, ‘Live the Life’, ‘This is Your Time’, ‘Come to the Cross’, ‘I’ll Wait For You’ and ‘Healing Rain’. Possibly one of the only CCM/pop artists (alongside Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant) who have been within the CCM music industry the longest, 56 year old Smitty has been able to re-invent himself- his music, his image, his musical styles, in order to stay relevant to a variety of current and potential listeners- those listeners who have heard his music since his humble beginnings, those who are casual listeners, or even those who may not have heard about him yet. Also switching labels like what Steven Curtis Chapman did in 2012, this time, Michael has moved from Provident Label Group to Capitol Christian Music Group, and more specifically, Sparrow Records (SCC did the opposite move, after spending a while on Sparrow Records, he is now on Reunion Records, under the umbrella of Provident Label Group); Michael’s latest album release, a hymns project released exclusively (physical copies) to Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores across the U.S.A., is an album to listen to if you are a great Smitty fan and you are anxious and eager to listen to his new studio album releasing in May 2014; or if you are just a fan of some hymns, preferably the older style hymns with piano at the musical forefront of the melodies. These 15 hymns encompassed in this project, while musically subdued, is great for reflective moments, and is a great addition for any person’s collection of Michael W. Smith albums. A great album to listen to, to tie yourself over until the new album releases, Hymns is a great reminder that hymns can be just as emotive, poignant and encouraging today as they were back then when they were written.
Looking through the song lineup of 15 tracks, Michael has been able to deliver to listeners timeless hymns, some of them well known, and others not so much. Despite even myself not recognising every single track on the album, Michael’s ability to utilise the piano and couple it with the strings and his powerful voice is something to behold, even if his music style may not necessarily be the first point and call of many listeners of Christian music. ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ begins the hymn journey of the album with great fashion, harkening back to the days of Glory or Freedom with a riveting piano introduction. While Michael’s voice feels a little raspier (maybe because he’s approaching 60!), he still has the passion, which is shown in not only this song, but throughout the album as a whole. The emotive moment where he declares that ‘…I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it one day for a crown…’, is one of the best highlights of the song. While I may have half expected for ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ (or any other hymn for that matter) to be more uplifting with drums, acoustic/electric guitars and a steady bass-line, the traditional music nature of the melodies gives us a great snapshot about how the songs may have been sung/heard way back in the day when they were first written.
Songs like ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘It is Well’, ‘Just As I Am’, ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ and ‘When I Surveyed the Wondrous Cross’ have all be significant in my own walk with Christ throughout the years, it was nice to see Michael cover these melodies on the album to the authenticity of it was written and originally recorded. And while neither of these melodies ever really added any upbeat instruments, the effect of hope and encouragement still remained, as Michael fervently declared out God’s promises in the hopeful words of how ‘…just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt, fighting and fears within, without, oh Lamb of God I come…’ (‘Just as I Am’), and that as we sing before the Lord, we are able to collectively proclaim His praises within these hymns made for us as it was for the people during the times when the songs were written. It can be weird to hear a whole album without drums or even electric guitars, and while this album may not necessarily be the first choice of album for a listener who wants to enjoy hymns with a more contemporary edge (may I suggest Jesus, Firm Foundation if you want to listen to an album of hymns with an upbeat edge), Michael has been able to create songs with emotion, poignancy and heartfelt enthusiasm as this March 2014 release flies under the radar in terms of popularity (especially in the month of other album releases like Jason Gray’s Love Will Have the Final Word, Rend Collective’s The Art of Celebration and Peter Furler Band’s Sun and Shield).
‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ delivers some light electric guitar sounds and a powerful piano riff as Michael declares that we have God as our friend, and that it is ‘…a privilege to carry everything to God to prayer…’, while ‘Softly and Tenderly’ promotes the theme of how Christ is calling for us to come to Him in a way that is non-threatening, but rather, softly, and indeed tenderly, coaxing us to follow His will as we see the wonders and signs of God’s love for us in everyday creation and circumstances. ‘My Jesus, I Love Thee’, is a poetic, lyrically sound melody that declares thanks and love to God, yet I felt that with just a piano, the instrumentation (or lack of it), led to me enjoying this song less than quite a number of the songs on the album, and while I know it’s not Michael’s intention of boring his listeners, I indeed felt a little disconnected from the song, despite its powerful chorus. Nevertheless, this possibly one of the few mishaps in an album that, while reflective and possibly not as appealing as Michael’s previous releases, does a great job at facilitating reflective contemplation and private worship. Both the album enders ‘God of our Fathers’ and ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You’ both remind me so much of songs arranged like how they would be sung when they were in fact written- with an image of an organ, and choir in my head whenever I hear these two melodies. With these two songs speaking about how we ought to remember our heritage as one where our ancestors followed Christ with their lives, as well as being reminded that God loves us and continuously blesses us as we honour and give our lives to Him; Michael delivers them well, yet I feel like these melodies may not have served the album well, with the songs delivered in such a way that even I myself could hardly concentrate in these tracks. Nevertheless, it is a great eye-opener to see how music could’ve been written and sung hundreds of years ago, and how for worship music and CCM have come.
Overall: Michael’s first studio recorded album within four years is one that’ll please hymn enthusiasts straight away, yet any other listener looking for powerful guitars and an array of drums or percussion sadly wouldn’t have it on this album. Nevertheless, Michael’s comeback to CCM (I really was having my doubts before this year) ought to be a celebration and reflection on the years that have transpired, which is exactly what Hymns is, a look at some of Michael’s favourite hymns, and rather recorded to be relevant to today’s society, it is rather done to reflect the society that the songs were written in, as a great snapshot into how music was perceived during that time as we see how much has changed since. Lovers of Michael W. Smith and his music would certainly love to check this music out, and even if you haven’t really enjoyed Smitty’s music before, this is nevertheless still a solid album, and a perfect gift if you love hymn-style music, or even if you’re stuck for ideas on what to buy for Mother’s Day. A great way to anticipate Sovereign, Michael’s latest is certain to become one of the most different and out-of-the-box album he’s ever done since Stand in 2006. Well done Michael for such a powerful and rewarding album experience!
RIYL: Steven Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant, Avalon, Kari Jobe
Buy the Album: iTunes/Amazon mp3