By BRUCE DENNILL
Darlene Zschech: In Jesus’ Name
Audio Adrenaline: Sound Of The Saints
Paul Wilbur: Forever Good
Bethel Music: Tides
Garbage: Strange Little Birds
Ed Sheeran: No 6 Collaborations Project
It seems that part of the intent behind In Jesus’ Name – a collection of songs from past albums, but not really a “Greatest Hits” compilation – is to underline the importance of worship over time. This includes being able to, using specific songs as cues, understand how passage through a difficult time was aided by the perspectives included in those compositions – on God’s love and guidance, among other things. In this context, the album’s subtitle – A Legacy Of Worship & Faith – helps to position the songs for listeners who have been aware of Australian singer-songwriter Darlene Zschech since she cemented her place in the worship music industry back in 1993 with enduring anthem Shout To The Lord (included here). There is much newer work as well, with God Is Here and the title track taken from 2013’s Revealing Jesus album. Many of the other songs, however, have been available on so many collections over the years that this particular album, strong as the material is, will only likely be essential listening if you don’t have any of Zschech’s other work in your collection already.
Audio Adrenaline was originally formed in 1986 and became well-known and much-loved for their alternate take on Christian contemporary music. Relationships have not always been smooth, though, and for this album, the group features no original members at all, making it more of a brand than a band. This is reflected in many of the songs on Sound Of The Saints, which feel written and produced to suit a set of radio requirements rather than to communicate a particular message. Some of them do work well, with Love Was Stronger adding some mature lyrical sentiments to a bouncy club-pop arrangement. The hook in Miracles is also strong, making it one of the first songs on the collection to settle into your psyche, with Spirit Burn kicking off with a punchy guitar and piano motif that gets rather last in the EDM-ish wash later in the song. That same feel, more consistently applied, makes Saved My Soul more effective, akin to a Christian Maroon Five or similar. It’s uncertain if or when new material will be forthcoming from this new collective persona, but on this evidence, they will need to work hard to maintain (or, indeed, attain) the reputation enjoyed by earlier incarnations.
Paul Wilbur remains a pleasing anomaly in contemporary worship circles as an American Christian whose lyrical vision – often extending to his musical style, is messianic, with elements of Judaism, including Hebrew and phrases more complex and interesting than some of those commonly included in more classically Western styles. If that sounds vaguely inaccessible, it’s absolutely not. Wilbur, now nearly 70, is only getting better at combining his various agendas in musical packages that unite a singer-songwriter’s sense of storytelling with a worship leader’s feel for what is easy to remember and sing along to (or, in secular terms, pop). Where Could I Go establishes a feeling of warmth via rich acoustic guitars and Wilbur’s avuncular vocals, adding complexity with clever switches between minor and major chords. King Of Glory plays more directly to a younger audience, driven by synths and distortion. Underlining his versatility, Wilbur then takes a style cue from the Middle East with the cyclical folk feel of Lechu Neranena L’Adonai, a catchy, striking tune that will expand English listeners’ experience. Even where the songs are simpler and more traditional – Blessed Is He Who Comes, for instance – the performance and production lift the compositions above the level of most of Wilbur’s competition. Indeed, though there are many worship music clichés here, lyrically speaking (see How Great Is Your Faithfulness) – not a criticism, necessarily; if those are the words of Scripture, including them is important in this context – Wilbur has, in his framing them with strong melodies and plenty of sensitivity, renewed their significance. Forever Good is an album to listen to in its entirety, consistent in tone and beautifully constructed throughout.
Bethel Music is, when considering the rate and variety of its output, an industry as much as it is a missions platform. Attracting and developing new musicians all the time, new songs and albums arrive in prodigious quantities, and there is argument that there is sometimes an element of profligacy in that release schedule (though only when judging at the standards Bethel has set). Tides is not one of the outfit’s best releases, though the talent of the musicians involved ensures that there is still the odd nugget. Breaking Through, written and fronted by Jeremy Riddle, is a buoyant early offering, with Forever (Kari Jobe’s version is probably the most famous) recognisable as the modern standard it has become. Much of what follows are examples of the current trend for densely arranged and produced radio pop-style worship – packed with plenty of energy but somewhat less personality. I Can Feel You is better; more atmospheric and driven by Jenn Johnson’s strong, distinctive vocals. Slow-building closer For The Cross is also good, repeating a lyrical message that, in the worship context, can’t be revisited enough. Tides, like its title, is full of highs and lows – not bad, but uneven.
Strange Little Birds is dark by design – that much is clear from the outset. And on the first couple of listens, that relentless minor-key approach can feel a bit much; it’s not a mood listeners will want to necessarily willingly embrace. But as the songs’ hooks begin to settle, there emerge moments when the grinding, aggressive power of the experienced outfit is shown to still be as appealing as their more chart-friendly moments. Empty has a neat intro riff and an expansive synth-backed chorus to bookend quieter sections of Shirley Manson singing probably the most accessible melody on the album, all of which makes the song a strong singalong option, despite its less than positive lyrical outlook. There is variety in the arrangements of the songs, with If I Lost You a sort of mellow trip-hop number and Even Though Our Love Is Doomed having a Nineties alternative feel. Magnetized and We Never Tell are strong, mass appeal songs, the former driven by an industrial groove and the latter a fast-paced pop-rock track. Strange Little Birds isn’t really an album of its time, fitting a number of musical niches over the past ten or 20 years, but it works, once you embrace the mindset behind the songs.
It’s difficult to see Ed Sheeran’s output as unrelated to a carefully planned strategy, despite the singer-songwriter’s genial manner. The title of No 6 Collaborations Project doesn’t have to be snappy and imaginative, because it’s being released by one of the biggest artists on the planet and features a list of similarly zeitgeist-gobbling names, from Cardi B, Chance The Rapper and Justin Bieber to Eminem, Skrillex, Bruno Mars and Chris Stapleton. Success is more or less guaranteed, and yet a look at the credits shows that Sheeran is not willing to coast on reputation – his alone or his combined with his guests. It would be a foolish publisher or playlist compiler who would disagree with Sheeran on the strength of a hook or a way of phrasing something based on current chart performance, but that is not taken for granted here, with the collaboration aspect of this collection extending beyond the names on the cover to ultra-reliable producer-songwriters including Max Martin, Fred Gibson and Steve Mac, who make regular contributions throughout the album. Given that platform, the mix sounds more or less as you’d expect it to, with chart-friendly pop and R&B touches everywhere. As such, it’ll appeal strongly to the middle of the road US and UK audience, as well as other listeners whose input is shaped by what goes on in those influential markets. Some tunes work better than others, with Beautiful People (featuring Khalid), I Don’t Care (featuring Justin Bieber) and Remember The Name (featuring Eminem and 50 Cent) being immediate standouts in the obvious single sense. Blow (featuring Bruno Mars and Chris Stapleton) is a brilliant diversion, a throbbing, strutting rock song that Lenny Kravitz must be coveting somewhere. The remaining high point is the simplest composition on the album, and the one that most recalls the sort of material Sheeran’s innate talent can produce. Best Part Of Me (featuring Yebba), is a stripped-down acoustic guitar, piano and two voices love song, and it’s beautiful. Sometimes adding less equals more.