Album Review :
Michael W. Smith - Sovereign

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Artist: Michael W. Smith
Title: Sovereign
Label: Sparrow Records
Release Date: 5/13/14
Reviewer: Jonathan Andre

Tracklisting:

  1. You Won’t Let Go
  2. Heaven Come Down
  3. Miracle
  4. Sky Spills Over
  5. All Arise
  6. You Are The Fire
  7. Christ Be All Around Me
  8. Sovereign Over Us
  9. Hide Myself
  10. The Same Power
  11. I Lay Me Down
  12. The One That Really Matters (feat. Kari Jobe)

‘…sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up…I feel like it’s a good season. I’m pretty passionate. I have lots of energy and I’m probably enjoying making music more than I ever have in my entire life. I’m having fun and I’m excited about this record and this next chapter…’ Michael W. Smith. Singing songs and making albums since 1983. While many artists from that time have come and gone, here we are, 31 years later, to witness possibly one of CCM’s most prolific, poignant, emotive and powerful songwriters ever release his brand new album Sovereign on May 13th 2014. While this 56 year old readies to bring to the world an album which I reckon is possibly the most enjoyable worship album I’ve heard from start to finish since One Sonic Society’s Live From the Tracking Room a couple of years ago; we are able to be a part of not only something great in terms of worship music for the church, but also hear an artist who’s just as passionate now as ever in his career. Famous for his 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’, Michael has re-invented himself, switching labels from Provident to Sparrow, and is now back with possibly his most relevant album since Healing Rain a decade ago. One of the only CCM/pop artists (alongside Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant) who have been within the CCM music industry the longest, Sovereign is a great album if you love Michael’s music (or just worship music in general). Streaming a week early on iTunes First Play, Michael is back to give us songs of hope and inspiration. Though he’s pushing sixty, I can’t see him retiring anytime soon (which is a great compliment!). From first radio single ‘You Won’t Let Go’ to the poignant anthem ‘Miracle’ and the duet with Kari Jobe on ‘The One That Really Matters’, Sovereign is an album that’s personally one of my favourites on 2014 so far, and one of the great standouts in May currently, alongside All Sons and Daughters’ self-titled new album and the anticipated debut solo album from Crowder later in the month.

With 5 songs out of the 12 melodies covers, fans of Smitty may be quick to say that he has jumped on the bandwagon of not writing his own songs, yet singing other people’s recorded material. While Smitty may not have written every song on the album (and quite frankly, most of Michael’s chart-topping album have been albums where he primarily didn’t write many of the songs- A New Hallelujah, Worship, Worship Again), his enthusiasm and passion is still paramount, regardless of the songs and their writers. Pseudo-title track ‘Sovereign Over Us’, originally written and recorded by Aaron Keyes, is slowed down considerably for this recording, with Michael adding in his trademark keyboard skills to overlay a song that has been primarily shown as an electronically driven melody (Aaron Keyes’s version of the song came out earlier in the decade). The end result is a melody that gives us a glorious reminder of God being sovereign over us in a way that gives us comfort in trusting him. The poignant chorus of how ‘…Your plans are still to prosper, You have not forgotten us, You’re with us in the fire and the flood, faithful forever, perfect in love, You are sovereign over us…’, is a great reminder of God’s faithfulness, and is one of my favourite parts of the song. Enhancing the melody to make it more well-rounded than just an electronic keyboard and percussion loop (not to discount Aaron Keyes’s version at all, but Michael’s emotive anthem is much more enjoyable), Michael continues to give poignant covers, this time through artists like Ben Cantelon, Dustin Smith and All Sons and Daughters. With Dustin contributing lyrically to both ‘You are the Fire’ and ‘The One That Really Matters’, Michael’s renditions of these songs have given me great interest in not only Sovereign as an album, but also the original songs by Dustin, and more intrigue to Dustin’s original material overall.

With themes like declaring that God is the fire within us as He burns and increases the passion and enthusiasm we have for Him (‘You are the Fire’), and declaring heartfelt that God is who really matters in our lives and nothing else (‘The One that Really Matters’- the longest song the album that invites us all to partake in the string led melody with emotive choruses and great harmonies between Michael and Kari); Michael offers up some of the best cover renditions ever heard of worship songs. ‘The Same Power’, recorded and written by worship artist Ben Cantelon, is also given the MWS treatment, and while I actually prefer Ben’s original recording better, Michael still gives a commendable effort with booming drums, light electric guitars, and a stirring chorus that asserts that God is ‘…Mighty Saviour, lifted high, King forever, Jesus Christ, crowned in glory, raised to life, the same power lives in us…’ Together with a song written by Leeland and All Sons and Daughters, ‘Christ Be All Around Me’ (an emotive piano driven anthem that reminds us that Christ is around us in all that we accomplish and undertake on a daily basis), that further asserts my conclusion that All Sons and Daughters are possibly one of the best worship artists currently; Michael’s covers are nothing short of impressive on the whole. With each of these songs given a great rendition treatment (even though I reckoned that Ben Cantelon recorded ‘The Same Power’ better), it is these songs that remind us of the quality of Michael’s musicianship, having the ability to take other people’s songs and turn them around to add a great trademark MWS flavour, which he has successfully done with ‘Above All’, whom everyone attributes to him as songwriter, but is actually written by fellow worship leader Paul Baloche.

The remaining 7 tracks are possibly some of the lyrically profound Michael has written ever since albums like Stand and Healing Rain. First radio single ‘You Won’t Let Go’, while the most lyrically safe and the most radio friendly out of the seven, still has that MWS charm, and that even if the lyrics are sadly simple, the infectious music melody and Michael’s trademark voice ought to encourage even the most uninterested of listeners as we witness a song that encourages us in the understanding that ‘…You are the anchor for my soul, You won’t let go…no matter what may come I know, You won’t let go…’ Assuring and encouraging, hopeful and comforting; Michael’s first song paves the way for many more, with subsequent songs better than the first. ‘All Arise’, the most vertical song on the album, is a moment of knowledge, awe and reverence as Michael uses just his vocal and the keyboard to present the powerful words of how ‘…there is only one who majesty is unending, there is only one, the King of Kings never failing…’, and while not necessarily the most musically ingenious (and therefore not the most memorable) moment on the album, Michael nevertheless has created a gem in terms of introducing new music to the church congregation. ‘Hide Myself’, a keyboard riff infused melody, is a song of dependence (not necessarily a bad thing) as we see Michael declare his own dependence on the Father through the words of how I ‘…hide myself, where I find my help, and I hide myself, I find only rest, I find only peace beneath Your wings…’, and how I myself am reminded of Isaiah 40:26-31 whenever I hear this track; while ‘I Lay Me Down’ seems most like a modern hymn as Michael starts off the melody (like he usually does with most melodies) with a piano piece to draw listeners into a song that encourages us to lay ourselves wholly down at Christ’s feet as ‘…at Your feet, I bow in wonder, at Your feet, I place my crowns, let surrender be the only sound, at Your feet, I lay me down…’

‘Miracle’, ‘Sky Spills Over’ and ‘Heaven Come Down’ are all immediately after ‘You Won’t Let Go’, and each of them show us why Michael is still being ingenious and inventive with his music- with these three melodies arguably being some of my favourite songs from Michael since ‘Come To the Cross’ and ‘Here I Am’. With pulsating drums, synth and a whole lot of enthusiasm and heart, ‘Sky Spills Over’ infuses a lot of genres together (pop, rock, praise, country) to deliver one of the biggest surprises Michael can give us on Sovereign. With a message of us declaring out God’s name, even ‘…til the sky spills over…’, the anthem invokes a sense of enthusiasm, pride, courage and conviction as ‘Sky Spills Over’ embodies a sense of boldness amidst all the unique overlaying of different instruments, especially in the poignant bridge that lets listeners know that ‘…I hear the roaring thunder, feel the pouring rain, my heart is filled with wonder, only You remain, I see a new horizon coming up my way…’ where hand claps, synth and layered vocals emphasise and increase the passion stirred up, in myself and hopefully others who hear it. Michael’s voice, and only his voice, begins ‘Heaven Come Down’, and from that note, we are given another synth track (a technique that is increasingly used on Sovereign) that brings the topic of revival and God falling upon us towards the fore. With what may seem to the casual listener as a lot of noise, Michael is able to incorporate a variety of instruments to create an experience that calls on us to just worship God and wait for Him to come, urging us to declare out the chorus of how we long for ‘…heaven [to] come down tonight, we wanna see Your glory shine, burning like a flame…forever, break every stronghold, shatter every wall so we can see, heaven come down tonight…’ And while both ‘Heaven Come Down’ and ‘Sky Spills Over’ are some of my favourite tracks off this album, ‘Miracle’ tops them both, and while not as musically flash as the other two, what the song has is a sense of honesty as Michael honestly declares from the out that he is ‘…a rebel heart, arrest the soul, I lost my sight, I lost control…’, something that we all could be feeling at any one point in our lives. With powerful guitars and light synth presence that ought to draw in listeners and electronic synth enthusiasts, Michael shows us that God always finds a way to bring His children back to Him, even if they have strayed (maybe like Michael as he describes in the song, but also like the lost son in the chapter of Luke). ‘Miracle’ refers to the miracle Christ did for us, but also the miracle of His love for us that is continuously unfathomable. We as the creation of God Himself are indeed miracles, both by shape and design, but also through Christ’s blood. A fitting song to be in my top 10 songs of the year so far, Sovereign, by these three aforementioned songs alone, ought to be listened to by anyone who loves contemporary pop, worship or Michael W. Smith’s earlier work!

Overall: Michael’s first studio recorded album on Sparrow Records within four years is one that’ll please MWS enthusiasts everywhere as we hear one of the most enjoyable albums personally since his 2004 album Healing Rain. Michael’s comeback to CCM (I really was having my doubts before this year) is a great occurrence to see, and with both Hymns and Sovereign highlighting the strong music and vocals Michael has, we are shown an album that’s one of 2014’s best. Released in what I call ‘worship month’, with albums from artists like All Sons and Daughters, Fellowship Creative, The Museum and Crowder being standouts for May (alongside this new album); Michael sounds better than ever, with these songs becoming anthems and possibly the soundtrack to many who hear it in the months and years to come. Well done Michael for such a poignant, powerful and prolific album, and one of the standouts (for me at least) in a career spanning 30 years, and one that I will see continuing for years to come!

RIYL: Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Leeland, Kari Jobe

Buy the Album: iTunes/Amazon mp3

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