BY BRUCE DENNILL
Michael W Smith: A Million Lights
Michael W Smith: Surrounded
Michael W Smith has a habit of – either unwittingly or by design – being a first responder to emerging zeitgeists. His explanation for both the inspiration behind his new releases and the fact that he released two albums within a week of each other was an the discovery, during an emotionally enforced break following the death of his father a couple of years ago, of just how profoundly divided his own countrymen were on a range of issues, and how the poisonous way in which those different perspectives were expressed and defended was further eroding relationships and the possibility of reconciliation.
The huge undertaking of putting two very different projects together has, in the light of the above, proved worthwhile, as studio album A Million Lights, with its pop beats and layered effects, delivers thought-provoking lyrical missives in radio-friendly vehicles while live album Surrounded provides tools for worshipers to draw closer to God, and in the course of doing so, closer to each other (where petty issues may have distracted them from doing both in recent political and social arenas).
It’s not a strategy that a lot of artists in any genre could have pulled off, but Smith is a blend of world-class writer, canny collaborator and musical diplomat, and all of those roles are, with the singer-songwriter having benefited from a period of rest in the lead-up to these releases, once again played with great effectiveness.
A Million Lights opens with the title track (not to be confused with the Tree63 hit), a catchy, anthemic pop single that will as easily get listeners dancing at will them thinking about its message. Conversation is even more electronically aligned to the contemporary pop formula, but without giving away authenticity and import – an impressive feat for a now 60-year-old artist.
Footsteps takes one of the most clichéd of Christian idoms and makes it both melancholic and inspiring, before Your Love suggests an unreleased Coldplay track. Early single Love Always Wins has a relatively generic message, but is a brilliantly structured and produced track, and Crashing Waves moves from a heavily processed opening vocal passage to the sort of soaring dynamics that have made many of Smith’s plethora of worship standards so effective in a congregational setting.
Hey Love harks back to Smith’s early Nineties output, gentler pop, featuring American Idol winner Jordin Sparks in a pleasing duet. Forgive also has something of that era’s musical mood, before Who You Are closes proceedings with a lift that makes it another potential single.
It’s not really accurate to say that the live worship context is Smith’s natural habitat – Billboard charts, radio hits and the sheer range of his recorded output give the lie to that – but releasing A Million Lights and Surrounded allows listeners a rare opportunity to compare two very different threads existing in an artist’s mind simultaneously, and in this case, live worship album Surrounded’s opener Your House feels – relative to the heavily produced tracks on its studio cousin – more true somehow (not a valid term in terms of technical quality, but certainly informative in terms of the emotion response stirred). The song is immediately accessible and effective – a rousing opening tune for any service or other worship meeting.
Light To You is a slow starter with a simple but profound thought at its centre and an arrangement that gradually and successfully builds to an apex that’s difficult to not respond positively to.
King Of My Heart is one of a long progression of interpretations – Smith only co-writes three of the 11 songs here – and John Mark and Sarah McMillan’s work is given a rousing, triumphant treatment. Reckless Love, from Bethel Music’s Cory Asbury, is currently one of those songs that is appealing across the board at church worship level, and its inclusion on this high-profile release will likely kick up its inclusion-in-canon progress another notch. Here I Bow is more generic but hardly less useful, while Miracles again showcases Smith’s ear for music that can fit the time it is sung in on a number of different occasions, being a now three-year-old song by Jesus Culture, a band more associated with a youth movement than one of worship music’s older stars (the same applies, more or less, to Do It Again, a song originally by Elevation Worship).
The title track, by Dallas worship leader Elyssa Smith (no relation) is a short simple refrain, repeated again and again, that communicates far more than the few words in its lyrics, perhaps most memorably in the line “It may look like I’m surrounded, but I’m surrounded by You.”
Washed Away sees Smith and his piano placed at the centre of a quieter arrangement that builds to include a segment of the hymn Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus, making it a valuable crossover option for worship leaders.
The last song, before a closing reprise of Light To You, is a version of All Sons & Daughters’ towering Great Are You Lord, a song that encourages full-hearted worship singing like few others. Smith’s take is a powerful one – not surpassing the impeccable original, but a marvellously exultant offering regardless.
A Million Lights
- A Million Lights 7.50
- Conversation 7.25
- Something In My Heart 6.00
- Footsteps 7.00
- Your Love 6.75
- Love Always Wins 7.50
- Crashing Waves 7.50
- Louder 6.00
- Revolution 6.25
- Hey Love 6.50
- If You Make Me Feel This Way 6.00
- Forgive 6.25
- Who You Are 7.00
- Your House 8.00
- Light To You 8.25
- King Of My Heart 7.75
- Reckless Love 8.00
- Here I Bow 7.50
- Miracles 7.50
- Do It Again 7.00
- Surrounded (Fight My Battles) 8.00
- Build My Life 7.50
- Washed Away 7.50
- Great Are You Lord 8.00
- Light To You (Reprise) 7.00