By BRUCE DENNILL
Jamie Lawson: Jamie Lawson
Brandon Heath: No Turning Back
Hawk Nelson: Diamonds
Various Artists: God’s Not Dead 2 – Motion Picture Soundtrack
Various Artists: The Voice Of The Martyrs – I Am N
Darlene Zschech: Here I Am Send Me
English singer-songwriter Jamie Lawson’s success has, to some degree, to with who he knows, but that being the case is another example of the folly of the way the music industry works. As a jobbing musician, Lawson managed to gain some traction in some far-flung corners of the planet, but when he was signed by Ed Sheeran to the latter’s Gingerbread Man label, he saw a re-released single – this album’s opening track, Wasn’t Expecting That – get into the top 10 on three charts it had previously not featured on at all. The same song, plus someone else’s marketing power … sigh. Regardless of that curious equation, Lawson presents direct, high-quality songwriting, the sort of thing that is sometimes, inexplicably, disparaged for not having enough layers or effects. Sincerity and sensitivity are obviously note enough on their own, but Lawson has impressive musicality and songwriting skills in spades. Wasn’t Expecting That is gently insistent, repeating that title phrase to underscore a strong hook. Someone For Everyone is that rare thing; a love song written for others, offering them hope. Still Yours is similarly fresh – and real – considering commitment in a loving, caring way (“This heart is still mine, which means it’s still yours”). All Is Beauty sounds slightly less traditional, adding subtle effects to recall Bon Iver’s more straightforward moments. In Our Own Worlds is serious, introspective and beautiful, sounding like Glen Phillips in his more understated moments. Temperate and tuneful.
American CCM singer-songwriter Brandon Heath projects an image that’s incredibly wholesome, even in the context of the Christian music industry. As such, his music is often, at first impression, so guileless as to occasionally appear tame. Pay a bit of attention, however, and it becomes evident that Heath is, as a starting point, an expert songwriter. Understanding that, listen further and you’ll hear a range of ideas and emotion that the pop polish of his production might otherwise gloss over. Opener One Way To Heaven is radio-friendly single (think One Republic) that espouses more eternal themes that what usually crams the airwaves, while Only Just Met You heads into the layered electronica often explored by industry counterpart Phil Wickham. No Turning Back, featuring All Sons & Daughters, pulls off that neat trick of functioning as an accessible worship song and a catchy country-pop tune at the same time and SOS, written by Heath’s longtime friend Ed Cash, shows that he can compellingly handle heavier themes in performance terms. When I Was Young, Everything Must Go, Sing Brave and Girl Of My Dreams both play into the innocent persona mentioned above, compact ballads that tell stories of simple times with the benefit of the experience gained by getting through them (a la early Steven Curtis Chapman). The latter is devoid of the machismo that many male singers feel they need to write into love songs and the result is the aural equivalent of watching an infatuated couple stare into each others’ eyes and smile, oblivious to everyone around them. It’s almost awkwardly intimate; a wonderful template for listening lovers to follow. Other tracks fit somewhere between the poles suggested by the above, and there is not a weak option among them. Nice guy he may be, but Brandon Heath certainly won’t finish last.
Diamonds was the first album by what is the most recent incarnation of Canadian Christian pop act Hawk Nelson (bassist Daniel Biro is the sole remaining founder member). Their sound is, unsurprisingly – this is essentially a new band – markedly different to earlier releases. In itself, this is not bad thing, but the current Hawk Nelson is a pop act, part of one of the busiest and most competitive genres in music. The title track, which opens the collection, is excellent, with a driving rhythm and a big, catchy chorus. That appeal is not really matched for the rest of the collection, though, giving listeners little to build up to. Drops In The Ocean adds pulsing bottom end to propel it forward, while Just Getting Started has hand-claps and whistles and a sort of Phillip Phillips chart appeal. Hawk Nelson are consistently positive in their lyrical outlook, which sets them apart from a number of their competitors, who generally take a gloomier view of affairs. This does, however, mean that Diamonds as a collection feels like escapism rather than an examination of the more layered themes most listeners will encounter every day. If accepted as such, it delivers, delivering earnest energy and musical aptitude.
God’s Not Dead 2 and its predecessor have functioned as rallying calls for Christians anxious to counter the removal of God from public discourse in America, so it’s not surprising that much of the soundtrack comprises strident, quotable anthems. Sound Of The Saints by Audio Adrenaline lays a strong foundation and fellow brand names Newsboys and MercyMe add solid accompaniment in Guilty and Welcome To The New respectively. Hawk Nelson’s Diamonds sounds more suited to its filmic context than some of the other songs. Trying to get that link right – the lyrics and energy of the tracks helping to drive the on-screen narrative forward – means that there is a certain similarity in approach in many of these songs. In the second half, that is solved to some degree by rap entries Raise The Banner (by Propaganda) and Exile Dial Tone (by Jasmine Murray) and by pleasing ballad Dead Man Walking by John Tibbs, which closes the collection. However, there’s not quite enough here overall to make this a great soundtrack, just as the sequel it accompanies is not as effective as the first film in the series. Adequate, but not inspiring.
Many Christians tend to think of persecution as not being allowed to pray at work during office hours or having someone say “Happy holidays” instead of “Happy Christmas”. The Voice Of The Martyrs – I Am N is a low-key but thought-provoking reminder that this is not the case everywhere. Specifically, the compilation aims to highlight a situation in northern Iraq where Isis spray-painted the Arabic letter “n” on the doors of Christians, identifying them as believers in a faith different to Isis’ militant brand of Islam and giving the residents of those homes the choice to convert, leave or die (ultimately, over 100,000 believers who refused to deny their faith were forced to flee). Do these 12 songs play a particularly significant role in addressing the pain those Christians must have felt, or in giving listeners intimate insight into their experience? In short, no. It’s the album’s packaging and the website it leads you to that provide information and channels of communication. But the sentiments in the songs – excellent tracks all – support and explain the myriad reasons the Iraqi believers may have made the choice they did. There Is Power, Jesus At The Center, Strong God, We Stand As One, All The Poor And Powerless – titles that speak of aspects of the lives of persecuted Christians as well as those in less pressured scenarios. And Travis Ryan’s We Believe is essentially a version of the Nicene Creed, laying it all out on the line. This is an excellent collection of music, and if bundling it together helps those outside of Iraq understand what happened there, then so much the better.
There’s a valid point of concern when it comes to the release of new worship albums in that, with so many releases in this genre, but a set amount of subject matter to address, there is bound to be repetition of themes and sonic ideas. Darlene Zschech has been behind some of the most enduring anthems in contemporary worship, but while that sets an expectation in terms of technical ability, it is no guarantee of meaning and weightiness when it comes to the songs themselves. And it must be said that in terms of creativity and freshness, Here I Am Send Me is no stand-out. Recorded live, the arrangements feature the constant presence of multiple voices – wonderful in terms of their being a response from the audience/congregation, but difficult to mix in such a way that the songs are given a powerful dynamic curve. What does mark this album as meaningful, however, is that it is the first release from Zschech after her recovery from breast cancer. It would be fair to expect some rather darker perspectives; more reflections on pain, anger and confusion. But Zschech’s leadership as a pastor (her other major role outside of her music) comes through in the statements she makes regarding her faith and the God in whom she believes. Songs like You Are Great, You Will Be Praised, First Love, Love And Wonder and the title track (which speaks of a willingness to continue serving) are all powerfully encouraging declarations, challenging listeners to consider their own responses in tough times. Kingdom Come, Your Eyes, Emmanuel and Beloved (which meshes part of the hymn When I Survey onto the end) are highlights.