Album Review of A Beautiful Exchange by Hillsong

Zac HicksAlbum Reviews9 Comments

Hillsong Live
A Beautiful Exchange
Released: June 29, 2010

Hillsong continues to prove itself to be a juggernaut in the worship music industry.  Now long ago in modern worship years, worship leader Darlene Zschech put Hillsong on the international map with “Shout to the Lord,” and they have never since faded in influence over Western evangelical worship (and they have decidedly broken into non-Western international contexts, as well).  Hillsong is a Pentecostal megachurch, so all their worship music is colored by their charismatic heritage. 

SUMMARY

Worth Getting It? 
Yes.  With each passing listen, it ministers to my heart more and more.  It blesses me most when I am listening to it with devotional intention.  Unlike some past Hillsong albums, I’m finding much less to raise an eyebrow at theologically.  Modern worship songwriting still needs to understand the difference between songs and expressions which are a part of private, devotional worship and songs which are intended for congregations.  So, again, for the personal listener the album is great, but not every song translates into the corporate worship experience (I recognize that all these songs have for Hillsong, but I respectfully disagree that some should.)

Songs I Would Most Likely Lead in Worship:
Tier 1: “Our God is Love,” “The One Who Saves,” “Thank You”

Tier 2: “Open My Eyes,” “Like Incense / Sometimes By Step,” “The Father’s Heart”
(Read comments in the song-by-song analysis below for further explanation)

OVERALL COMMENTS

The New Face of Hillsong.  This album is a testament to what is happening in the worship leadership down in Sydney.  With the maturation of the first generation of Hillsong United worship leaders (United is Hillsong’s youth, college, and young adult expression)—Joel Houston, Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood, Jad Gillies, and Matt Crocker—we’re seeing them graduate into Hillsong-main and appear on albums like this one.  This transfer was also evident when I saw Hillsong United here in Loveland, CO several months back.  Houston and Ligertwood were there, but they were also giving air time to some newer, younger faces.  But personnel is not the only thing transferring from Hillsong United to Hillsong-main.

Musicality.  This album witnesses a stylistic blend of the more adult-contemporary, mainstream sound of Hillsong with the gritty, adolescent fervor of Hillsong United.  You could either call it a more pumped-up Hillsong or a more mellowed Hillsong United.  Pick your poison.  The clues are in the more edgy electric guitar work (e.g. the more punk-style opening measures of “Open My Eyes” or the detuned, feedbacky outro to “Believe”), the more aggressive United-style drumming (lots of tom-work and a more constant use of the kick drum on solid eighths or sixteenths), and a lot more ambient, “experimental” sounds from the guitars and keys.  However, the regular Hillsong vibe penetrates in many of the melody lines, vocal harmonies, and familiar chord progressions.  Musically speaking, then, the album is beautiful.  Its production is superb, as always, keeping consistent with the Hillsong sound we’ve come to know and love—lots of verb and the constant presence of backing “congregational” vocals.  Some musical critics will say that all the songs sound the same, and there’s some merit to that criticism: the album is dominated by the quadruple-meter and each song has some combination of the same I, IV, V, and vi chords in typical progressions.  Musically, perhaps what I admire most about Hillsong is their ability to sweep across a breadth of dynamic range—no one can crescendo and descrescendo like Hillsong can.  Worship bands have much to study and learn from this one aspect of our brothers and sisters down under.

Accessibility.  To my ear, Hillsong has always been more accessible for congregations than Hillsong United.  If they’re highly synchopated in their vocal rhythms, there’s enough consistency to make it catchable in short order.  A Beautiful Exchange is a very singable album (with the caveat that every song could be transposed down a few steps).  Vocal lines are melismatic, without too many leaps in awkward places.  If there are leaps, they are textually appropriate.  However, it’s one thing to sing these songs, and it’s another thing to play these songs.  I regularly underestimate how hard it is to reproduce the dynamic and ambient fullness of their musical sound in our worship context.  Those who think modern worship is filled with banal rock music do not fully appreciate how symphonic rock can become in the right environments, and a careful ear will notice this about Hillsong.  Still, most of us don’t have as many musicians leading as Hillsong does, and our acoustic environments are rarely the expansive arenas that the Aussies are used to playing in.  Those two things alone make it very difficult to translate Hillsong songs into other more tame congregational contexts without somewhat neutering the impact of their wedding of text and music.  Still, I think many of these songs can and will translate.

Theological Depth.  Theologically, Hillsong has always focused on the basics…the essentials.  Therefore, in every album including this one, we’ll hear a lot about the cross, salvation, healing, and its interpersonal intersection with the individual Christian.  This is a beautiful thing!  Though I don’t feel anything is flat out erroneous, I have commented in the past my discomfort with Hillsong’s triumphalism—victorious proclamations of what I can do with my faith for God.  Of course triumph is a reality of the Christian faith, but we must never put our stock there.  We must put our stock in the Gospel.  So with A Beautiful Exchange, either I’m getting softer in my criticism or Hillsong has actually stepped back a notch from that triumphalism.  I’m noticing more God-focus and less me-focus.  There is more rumination on Christ’s victory and God’s Kingdom than I’ve noticed in past recordings.  The only songs that I find theologically suspect are “You” and “Beautiful Exchange” (see below).  On the other end, I was surprised to hear some talk of God’s sovereign choice of us in salvation in “The Father’s Heart” (see below also)!  Choice-language is certainly biblical and therefore used by both Calvinist-types and Arminian-types, but most Arminians avoid the word altogether…especially in worship songs.  Perhaps tulips can grow in Australia!  😉 

SONG-BY-SONG ANALYSIS

1. Our God is Love
This is a fabulous entrance song.  It is energetic with some refreshing drumming.  Its theme is obvious—the Love of God the Father.  Some songs about God’s love are generic enough that almost any monotheistic religion could use them.  However, the chorus leaves no room for question that God’s love is chiefly expressed through His Son:

This is love
Jesus came and died and gave His life for us
Let our voices rise and sing for all He’s done
Our fear is overcome
Our God is love

As our church continues to preach through the gospel of Mark, I’m more aware that, biblically speaking, the antithesis of faith is fear.  So I appreciate all the more the reference to fear in the chorus.

2. Open My Eyes
This is another energetic, God-exalting tune.  I appreciate its posture of need.  Its tenor is, “God, I need YOU to open my eyes that I may see You, love You, and worship You.”  Reuben Morgan is a solid songwriter.  Perhaps the only reason I don’t put it on tier 1 of my list above is because, musically (though it’s not bad), it feels very similar to many other worship songs.

3. Forever Reign
This song appears in a radio edit version in track 13, which makes me think that either Hillsong or EMI/Sparrow* seems to think that this song has some mainstream hook or appeal as a hit single.  The chorus says:

Oh I’m running to Your arms
I’m running to Your arms
The riches of Your love
Will always be enough
Nothing compares to Your embrace
Light of the world forever reign

This very personal love-language always strikes me as odd for the corporate worship setting.  I’m not totally against it, but I do find that it fosters the me-and-God-moment that is so antithetical to the corporate worship experience.  Yes, intimate love language is present in the Bible, but “I’m running to Your arms” does not seem to be a phrase which has many close cousins in the phraseology of Scripture.  Furthermore, it’s odd to me that “forever reign” is the title when the chorus has less to do with God’s reign over us and more to do with God’s intimate love for us.  Maybe I’m a prude, but “running to your arms” has never been my worship cup of tea.  I’m sincerely open to growth.

4. The One Who Saves
This is a gentle, mid-tempo 6/8 song, that has a nice dynamic contour.  It begins in an invitational manner.  The song is comforting and uplifting, and it is Christ-centered.  The song’s bridge is exquisite…seemingly unending repetition of “His love endures forever.”  Its focus is to draw us in by the unsurpassed, magnetic love of God in Christ.  I love this song.  Thank you, Ben Fielding.

5. Like Incense / Sometimes By Step
Rich Mullins continues to live on, praise God!  I didn’t read the title before listening to this song, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear Mullins’ famous chorus in the reverberant style of Hillsong.  The reason I love this song is because it is filled with biblical language and allusion.  Echoes of Psalm 141, Psalm 119, Matthew 11, and other passages permeate the verses.  Here’s verse 1:

May my prayer like incense rise before You
The lifting of my hands a sacrifice
Oh, Lord Jesus, turn Your eyes upon me
For I know there is mercy in Your sight
Your statutes are my heritage forever
My heart is set on keeping Your decrees
Please still my anxious urge toward rebellion
Let love keep my will upon its knees

Isn’t that beautiful?  As I’ve said before, Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood has always so masterfully woven Scripture into her songs, perhaps better than the other great songwriters she is surrounded by.  This is the song on the album which most resonates with my heart.  The only reason I put it on tier 2 is because the verses don’t flow off the tongue easy enough.  I think this song would work great as a solo-and-response with the congregation singing the chorus. The track has a great extended ending with ambient voices and a beautiful electric slide guitar line. 

6. The Greatness of Our God
This is another great song.  It is God-lifting and self-effacing.  It is simple, but not simplistic.  I love the line in the second half of the chorus:

I spend my life to know
And I’m far from close
To all You are
The greatness of our God

Here is the balance to the triumphalism I’ve always hoped for with Hillsong.  “I spend my life to know,” a triumphal statement, is juxtaposed with “and I’m far from close.”  Beautiful.  I put this on tier 2 for the same reason “Open My Eyes” is there.

7. The Father’s Heart
A building, driving, mid-tempo song.  Intimately personal and sweetly humble.  The strings in this song that emerge after the first chorus are beautiful—reminiscent of Viva la Vida.  The chorus begins with an extended, melismatic “Oh,” that has come to characterize the Hillsong-style “shout of praise” present on more and more of their albums.  The chorus excites my Presbyterian senses:

Oh…
Sin is broken
The lost now chosen
In the Father’s heart

God’s unmerited choice!  Apart from the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, there is no more shocking, paradoxical, and beautiful doctrine than this.  Nothing elicits more praise out of my bones than this reality—God, out of His good pleasure, should choose to rescue me from my sin, sickness, and ultimate deserved destination.

8. You
There is one line repeated several times throughout this song which itches me theologically:

The worst of me succeeded by the best in You.

What does that mean?  I’m sure that Joel Houston means for it to be understood as a light, human expression (an anthropomorphism).  However, this teeters too closely on the brink of theological imprecision.  When we speak of “the best in God,” that would seem to imply that there are other parts of God which are not “best.”  But Scripture would have us believe that God is the extreme superlative of every aspect of Himself.  God is not only good; He is the superlative of goodness.  God is not only love; He is the ultimate embodiment of love.  God is not only just; He is perfectly just.  And on and on.  Whereas genuinely good things about me—my musical ability or my dashing good looks—will always have room to be better, there is no better with God.  Whatever God is, He is the definition of its best.  There is nothing with God that needs improvement.  Now, I believe with absolute certainty that Houston concurs with what I said, and I can even believe that Houston didn’t intend for the phrase to be taken the way I’ve taken it.  But that’s not the point.  If there’s a potential that others could take it that way, it is most of the time not worth the hassle.  This is what I mean by “theological imprecision.”  It’s not wrong, but it could be taken wrongly.

For what it’s worth, in the digital booklet, the phrase “Steel all that is within me” is written.  I think they mean “steal.”

9. Love Like Fire
This is one of those generic modern worship songs, in my opinion.  With phrases like, “Your love is like fire,” “take me deeper,” “draw me closer,” “my only desire,” etc., it’s one of those songs which contemporary worship critics would put in the “Jesus is my boyfriend” category.  I don’t have a problem with such songs, as I think there’s biblical room for such expression (though, as I said above, these songs fit better in private, not public, worship). I have no doubt that the song was born out of a profound experience, but there are many songs like this out there.

10. Believe
“Believe” is a simple, devotional song of consecration.  Like the previous song, it’s filled with a lot of stock worship phrases.  Its chorus seeks to find God’s strength amidst our weakness…not a bad thought for pondering.

11. Beautiful Exchange
As the album’s title track, there is at least some intention for this song to speak to the whole of the collection…and it does.  “Beautiful exchange” speaks of our exchanging our weakness, sin, and brokenness, for the wholeness, healing, and atonement of Christ.  In theological terms, this exchange is summarized in the doctrine of double imputation.  Christ’s goodness and righteousness imputed to us; our sin and sickness imputed to Him.  This song is “testimonial” in nature.  The opening verse says,

You were near though I was distant
Disillusioned, I was lost and insecure
Still mercy fought for my attention
You were waiting at the door, then I let you in

Those more sympathetic to an Arminian soteriology (the exercise of libertarian free will in our salvation) will be comfortable with this last line.  I’ve heard salvation described often described in this way—God standing at the door of our hearts, knocking, waiting for us to open it to let Him in.  They usually base that idea on Revelation 3:20, but that is an incorrect use of that passage, as Christ is standing at the door of the hearts of believers.  Compare this song to Charles Wesley’s famous testimonial hymn, “And Can it Be”:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee

Here we have a very similar explanation of the beautiful experience of radical conversion.  But notice the emphasis on who does what, and when.  For Houston, God is waiting for us to act.  For Wesley, we are helpless slaves until God acts.  Then, and only then, can we “rise forth and follow” God.  The tricky part is that, experientially, radical conversion often feels the way Houston describes—I choose God, and nothing happened until that choice was made.  But our choosing God, according to Scripture is founded upon God’s choice and pursuit of us, first (see Ephesians 1).  Long before we realize it, God is working saving grace into our hearts. 

“Beautiful Exchange” has a “7-11” ending which may bother some.  I happen to think it’s glorious and appropriate.  No less than thirteen times, they repeat the line,

Holy are You, God
Holy is Your name
With everything I’ve got
My heart will sing, how I love you

12. Thank You
There is nothing fancy and nothing new about this song.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song.  It is a beautiful, simple way to end the album.  It simply thanks God, in broad terms, for who He is and what He’s done.  The pre-chorus and chorus are filled with typical “praise and worship” phraseology (e.g. “There is no one like you” and “To your name we give all the glory”), but again that is not bad.  Worship leaders like me need to be exposed to and lead songs like this.  We tend to err on the side of hymns and songs which are verbose and dense, and room should be made for expressions which are simple and direct.  Songs like these, in contexts like mine, refresh and renew our congregations.

13. Forever Reign (Radio Version)
I regularly listen to Christian radio.  It has always perplexed me that Hillsong is surprisingly absent from airtime, given their popularity and influence.  Hillsong songs have been played plenty (e.g. “Hosanna,” “Mighty to Save,” “From the Inside Out”), but, in my opinion, they’ve always been Americanized remakes that are too polished and lack the vitality of the Hillsong originals.  Perhaps this track is an attempt by Hillsong (but more by EMI/Sparrow*) to create a radio sound.  I can’t figure out, though, why the industry moguls have an issue with Hillsong’s original sound.

*NOTE: The original publishing of this post erroneously listed Hillsong’s label as Integrity.  As of this album, they have now moved to EMI/Sparrow.  (Thanks for the correction from Ryan Erickson and Phil below.)

9 Comments on “Album Review of A Beautiful Exchange by Hillsong”

  1. Thank you, Zak, for your careful and thoughtful review of this album. I agree 100% with this review. I would echo what you said about their lyrics. They have moving more into songs about God doing for us, rather than us doing for God. Also, I completely agree with the Houston song "You." I put the CD on and was moved straight through "The Father’s Heart." Then, I was digging the little synth line whirring around until I heard "the worst of me succeeded by the best of you." This sort of "catchy" line wouldn’t have stood out to me if we weren’t coming out of four theologically strong and very sound songs.

    I think a big influence on the vastly improved theology of Hillsong songs is Robert Fergusson, a pastor there. From what I can tell, he is the pastor who checks through the songs for content before they are recorded. He also admitted, in an online video during a workshop, that he was embarassed for their team having written "JEsus Lover of my soul." The line "Jesus, I will never let you go" he said was the biggest problem and put the focus on building up the self rather than God. I think He’s doing good things with their music.

    Thanks for humbly mentioning the importance in Calvinist doctrine about being chosen. This is such an important part of Scripture and its a shame I have friends who hear the word "predestination" and jumpy emotionally to "frozen chosen frozen chosen."

    I’m a worship leader/organist at Emmanuel PResbyterian Church in New York City. We’re a daughter church of Redeemer Presbyterian. Where are you a member?

    Wishing you all the best. Thanks again.

  2. Regarding the song "You," I’ve often felt the same way about the popular-6-years-ago-but not anymore (a constant problem of modern worship) song "Enough." It goes like this:

    "All of you is more than enough for all of me"– which, apart from being an incredibly obvious statement to any deity, is a really weird way to say something. Sure, it’s poetical, but it doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t we be more accurate to say, "the smallest sliver of you would overwhelm me to the point of death"?

    Same problem seems to appear in "You," as you point out. I just don’t have time to sing something I don’t understand, and therefore can’t honestly mean as an expression towards God. This is why I don’t think I’ll ever really appreciate Hillsong as you do, Zac. Their pentecostalism and triumphalism will always leave them fairly shallow, and despite the one line of election, their theology of sanctification has always seemed to me to be uncomfortably Keswickian.

    AND, ironically, pentecostalism in third world countries seems to focus on different theological emphases, which Hillsong almost always seems to miss: heaven, eternal judgment, heaven, simple joy and happiness, and heaven.

  3. Keenan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Thanks for sharing about Robert Fergusson, as I wasn’t aware of what their pastoral makeup was like or what their song screening process was. That’s encouraging. We’ll be in contact.

    Zac

  4. As usual, I really appreciate your voice or reason and moreso a willingness to analyze and dig into the things that really matter regarding worship. Thanks and keep it up.

    I think I have been on a minor Hillsong-hating spree, to be honest, for a short while. I think I was disenchanted with the showmanship I hear and have seen at concerts. Alas, I listened to the "1 Heart" live record today and was thankfully drawn to theocentric worship once again. I tweeted earlier that Hillsong produces great music, good lyrics (sometimes too simple), and I was annoyed with their hurried attempts to "pump up crowds" during concerts. When I hear someone leading worship say something to the tune of "Now I wanna hear you sing with all your heart now! Ready? 1,2,3,4…" I tend to just not like this. I would rather have a word about God instead of pleas for my singing (although exhorting the congregation to sing is indeed important as Wesley noted in his first point!).

    Well that was mainly all opinion and thoughts. Bottom line is I like Hillsong but think that their songs overall are surpassed by others (I show my strong new hymns bias here…) and am disenchanted with the (IMO) more unhelpful / distracting aspects that Pentacostalism has brought to modern corporate worship.

    Lots of opinion in there, so don’t count anything as too serious or important!

    – Trevor M. ( http://arguingwithangels.blogspot.com )

  5. Thanks for your in-depth review, Zac. It really makes me think critically about the words that I am hearing (and usually repeating) as I listen to these songs.

    A minor note – Hillsong is no longer published by Integrity. I believe this is the first album they have released with Sparrow/EMI, their new representation.

  6. Zac,

    I just found your site… am enjoying some of your articles.

    Just a minor comment, as an FYI: The Hillsong catalog – distribution and marketing – has been transferred to EMI. Hillsong is no long partnered with Integrity Music.

    Phil

  7. Hi Zac,

    This analysis is quite in depth, I must confess. I'm an avid Hillsong listener and have always been captivated by what I consider to be lyrical genius that their music possesses. Above all, their theocentric approach to worship, but for a few instances has always stood out. The genuineness of their worship is what I believe captures the hearts and minds of many. It's my prayer that our modern day contemporary artistes would seek to exalt,extol and glorify God and God alone in their music and quit all the anthopocentric tendencies that I see in some of my country's local artistes. Thanks again and God bless you.

  8. Thank you for your analysis. I am relieved that I am not the only one who sees the me me me, instead of God God God. In the church I used to go to, before moving, we sang "Jesus, lover of my soul," with the words switched. I never knew the actual words until attending the church I am attending now. The words stuck out like a sore thumb to me.
    I also appreciated your thoughts on corporate versus individual worship. My husband and I were just discussing this very concept before I read your thoughts. I agree very much with you.
    I wish more people would speak up so people like me don't think they are weird and the only one.
    Have a nice day.

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