Review of Matt Redman’s new album, We Shall Not Be Shaken

Zac HicksAlbum Reviews3 Comments

We Shall Not Be Shaken
Matt Redman, We Shall Not Be Shaken (August, 2009)
My recommendation is that worship leaders and worshipers alike should buy this album.  My three favorite songs, which I hope to use at my church, are “You Alone Can Rescue,” “How Great is Your Faithfulness,” and “Remembrance.”

Overall Comments

I must say I’ve been following Redman for a long time—since the late 90s.  His early albums were great. In the 2000s, Where Angels Fear to Tread was a powerful album for me, mostly because, well before it became famous, “Blessed Be Your Name” became a heart-song of mine as God took my wife and me through the valley of the shadow of death.  After Angels came Beautiful News, and I must admit that I was disappointed in it.  My expectations were probably too high, but too many songs seemed either unsingable, too bland, or attempting too much chordally/musically.  We Shall Not Be Shaken is, in my mind, a few large leaps back up “great worship album” hill.
As I’ve said about every album Redman has put out, We Shall Not Be Shaken shows Redman to be a worship leader who actually reads His Bible.  His songs, while existential, are filled with Bible quotes, Scriptural allusion, and theological depth.  In this respect, he seems to be getting better with every subsequent album.
The production on this album is great…better than previous collections.  There is a nice sonic variety within the pop/rock genre.  Electric guitars aren’t monochromatic.  Some songs are piano-driven rather than guitar-driven.  There are U2 and Coldplay overtones here and there, and I’m hearing a more noticeable use of sampling/programming/looping than what has been on previous albums.  There are more mid- and up-tempo songs (which, personally, I find harder to write [with any substance] than slower songs).  Redman’s voice has never been a flashy one.  In many ways, I view him as the Rich Mullins of modern worship, in the sense that his recordings are admired not because he’s a virtuoso vocalist but because he writes incredible texts.  And there’s something refreshing about a “straight up” vocalist every once in a while.  You can tell Redman is a worship leader rather than a performer.  (I like Brenton Brown’s recordings for a lot of those same reasons.)
Gospel-Centered, and God-Centered
I praise Redman and this album chiefly for its gospel-centeredness.  Too many worship songs ignore the gospel, probably because the whole concept of gospel-as-entrance-ticket (but not as our ongoing source of sustenance and sanctification) is still pretty prevalent in evangelicalism.  So, that Redman continually points to the life and work of Christ, and that he roots our worship in God’s finished work in Jesus, are necessary correctives/emphases for mainstream evangelical worship.  The album is a gospel-centered album.
I also applaud Redman and this album for its God-centeredness.  There’s a lot of “You” and much less of “me.”  And any time there is “me,” it’s always set in the context of “You.”  Song after song exalts God’s greatness, faithfulness, and enduring love.  As John Witvliet has pointed out about the Psalms, Redman grounds praise in God’s attributes and His deeds.  Worship is not a mere mystical encounter with the force of the Divine, it is a recounting of the works of God in history, ushering forth an overflow of praise.  Bravo, Mr. Redman!  The title track, “We Shall Not Be Shaken,” repeats a mantra similar those used by Hillsong United lyricists:
We shall, we shall not be shaken.
But, unlike the self-triumphalism one sometimes finds in the texts of modern worship songs, Redman points back to the reason that we are not shaken:
For You are, You are never changing.

Our triumph is grounded in Christ’s.  I appreciate that Redman makes that explicit, because when it’s not, it has a subtle way of educating our congregations to be boastful in ourselves or to think that we’ve got the spiritual fortitude to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  The theme of God’s triumph and what that means for us reverberates throughout many tracks on the album—our glory is only great as it is derivative of God’s.
Even in Redman’s communion song, “Remembrance,” where it speaks of our remembrance leading us into worship, Redman is quick to point out:
By Your mercy we come to Your table
By Your grace, You are making us faithful

What a great line! We’re only faithful because God made us so.  More God, less me.  Amen!  “Remembrance” is a great song for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (not enough modern worship songs are written for this sacred, vital act of Christian worship!).  Redman seems, too, to be stretching his theological boundaries, coming from the charismatic side of evangelicalism.  Probably more implicit than explicit, there are overtones of Christ’s real presence in the sacrament, in climactic lines such as:
Lord Jesus, come in glory.

One can understand this line from a Zwinglian, purely symbolic perspective by saying that Redman is just referring to how the table points to the wedding feast and that the request for Jesus to “come in glory,” is a longing for Jesus to come in the eschaton.  However, I think the context shows that Redman intended for this request to be a desired reality in the moment of Holy Communion.  In this instance, Redman sounds more Reformed than Pentecostal…though I’m definitely willing to admit to biased lenses.  So, for Redman, it seems that this song goes further than its title…communion is more than remembrance.  It is an encounter with the living Christ—albeit mysterious and veiled in the “how’s.”  An aside to this song:  I love the opening programming on “Remembrance;” it reminds me of some Radiohead song I can’t quite recall right now (I think it’s on Kid A).
The Three Best Songs on the Album
I have three favorites on the album, which I will not rank, because they are too fresh.  They’re merely in order of appearance.  The first is “You Alone Can Rescue.”  It’s a slow to mid-tempo song with a nice dynamic contrast.  The lyrics are singable and attainable.  I love it for its high view of God’s work in our salvation: all God, no me.
The second favorite is “How Great is Your Faithfulness.”  It’s an accessible song in a steady, mid-tempo 6/8 beat.  It’s got a splendidly climactic chorus (the recorded key is probably a bit high for congregations…I’d probably set it in G at church).  Though he doesn’t mention the word “covenant,” the song is filled with covenantal overtones.  It points to God’s promises, His unfailing love and justice, His steadfast, unwavering will.  I love it!
The third favorite is the aforementioned “Remembrance,” mostly because it puts a celebrative spin on Holy Communion (while still engendering reverence) and because I find myself in agreement with its apparent stance on the presence of Christ in communion (see above).
Other Comments
“For Your Glory” is a nice song to encourage dancing in congregations (still tough for me to encourage in my congregation whose history has engendered a lot of stiffness!).  It’s a 120-ish bpm up-tempo number.  Its chorus is grounded in the famous Psalm often used in Advent, Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O you gates, be lifted up you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”
“My Hope” is exciting for me personally because Redman has set an old hymn (“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”) to a new melody.  He’s replaced the standard chorus with a different one, equally beautiful, while a bit more personal.  The music in this song is epically exquisite—piano and strings.  With an interesting interplay of key-structure: verses are in G-minor and the choruses are in G-major (with a V of vi used to transition from minor to major).  Redman only uses two verses from the original hymn, but it would be easy to incorporate all the verses of Edward Mote’s original text.  The album ends on this song, which is a soft and beautiful “period” given to a beautiful set of songs.
One Note, One Minor Error
Don’t confuse “The More We See” with a song Redman sings that was hot on Christian radio a few months back, called, “King of Wonders,” which has the ending line, “the more we see the more we love You.”  This “The More We See” is a different song.  I don’t think it’s close to being the best on the album, but I wanted to point it out to any who might think that they’re getting “King of Wonders” when they’re not.
There’s an error in the iTunes digital booklet.  The lyrics to “We Shall Not Be Shaken” were duplicated under “Through it All”…no doubt an editorial cutting and pasting issue.  Fortunately (and this isn’t always the case on recordings), the vocals are sung, EQ-ed, and mixed in such a way that the text is clearly audible and understandable.

iworship hymns…c’mon, let’s think differently about how to “redo” hymns

Zac HicksAlbum Reviews, Convergence of Old and New in Worship, History of Worship and Church Music, Hymns Movement News & Reviews, Worship Style, Worship Theology & Thought5 Comments

iworship_hymns Check out the album.
If you’ve been checking me out, you know me by now.  You know that I’m an odd lover of traditional hymns and modern worship.  So I usually pick up anything that says “hymns” on it and looks remotely modern, to see what kind of work is going on in that field.  I therefore picked up “iworship hymns” from Integrity music.  They’ve been putting out this iworship series for a while now, and they’re latest issue is an album dedicated to hymns.  It is a compilation of previously-recorded, previously-released tracks from great Integrity artists like Paul Baloche, Gateway Worship, Hillsong, New Life, etc.
The album is a good one.  It’s a great listen and has great production.  The texts of the songs are wonderful, and the worship leaders are all great, authentic people, passionate about God’s glory.  But I’m discouraged about what’s going on in modern worship with regards to “resetting” hymns, and this is a prime example.*
I’ll begin my analysis with a vignette of a typical conversation I often have with people when I tell them about what I’m trying to accomplish with The Glad Sound. I’m sure my friends at Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, and Sojourn Community Church have had similar dialogues.
Person:  So what’s your project about?
Zac:  We’re taking the texts of old hymns and setting them to new music…new melodies, chord structures, and instrumentation.
Person:  Oh, I LOVE that!  I love it when we sing “updated” hymns in our church.
Zac:  Tell me about that a bit more.
Person:  You know, when they take an old hymn and “jazz it up” by adding drums or guitars or something.  They just make those outdated hymns contemporary.
Zac:  Oh, cool.  (sigh…)  [the conversation continues as I try to explain how what we’re doing is different, and hopefully better]
I don’t know how many times I have had this conversation.  People don’t understand that when we’re “resetting” hymns, we are not keeping the music, at all.  We are not “updating” or “jazzing up” the melodies and chord structures.  It’s as though we’re taking a written poem and setting music to it for the first time.  The old tune and the new tune have nothing to do with each other, except that they can be affixed to the same text. I’m not completely against this type of re-hymn setting.  I think in some cases it works and sounds great (for some reason, I’ve felt that songs in 3/4 and 6/8 work better for this).  But more often than not, it sounds forced, canned, and a bit artificial.  There’s a good reason for this.  The music was composed in a different style and genre (often block chord writing) that doesn’t easily and naturally import to modern styles (melodies with fewer chord changes between).  Often, I feel that the original composers are rolling over in their graves when their music is bent out of shape.  (Again, I’m not totally against it…I plan on at least attempting to jam the plainsong chant melody of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” into a modern groove on our next album…traditionalites, don’t shoot me, please).
These types of conversations, and these types of “updated hymns” albums like “iworship hymns,” betray a myopia quite pervasive in mainstream evangelical music: the only way to do hymns in modern worship settings is to take the original melodies and affix a new instrumentation, syncopation, and beat to them.  Friends, THERE IS ANOTHER WAY!  And this other way is something that’s been going on for centuries (see my previous post on this for more detail).  For centuries, musicians have sought to re-clothe an old hymn in the current musical vernacular.  Almost any time you look in a hymnal and see a text written in one year and the music written much later, that’s usually the case.
Why is it that we only think we have one option here?  Why is it that new modern worship “hymns” projects deliver to us the same thing again and again?  Please don’t take me as complaining about these projects.  I’m more observing and lamenting the fact that there aren’t more who are “updating” hymns in ways which feel more natural to everyone.  In conversations where I’m talking to a lover of old hymns who actually gets what I’m doing, they’re appreciative, not only that I’m giving modern worshipers a taste of old hymns, but that I’m not tampering with the musical integrity of the tunes previously used for these hymns.
I just know that there is so much more to be done in re-setting hymns, but every time I pick up a new “hymns” album, it’s just the same old concept, recycled.  There are SO many hymns to be brought back to the church, and there are SO many great songwriters out there!  Step up!  You can have so much more freedom with these hymns than you might realize!
Peace, love, dove.
*One mild exception to my discussion on the iworship hymns album is “When I Survey,” by Kathryn Scott, re-set to the tune to “O Danny Boy.”  It’s actually a beautiful setting and brings out some different nuances of the text that I’m interested in exploring.

Album Review of Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth by Hillsong United

Zac HicksAlbum Reviews3 Comments

hillsong-unitedHillsong United, Across the Earth: Tear Down the Walls (May 2009)

It’s been a pleasure to buy a copy of United’s latest work.  I’ve been processing it, listening to it in my car, and dialoguing with a few friends about it.  I’ve been looking on United’s site and reading some posts to get some context for its creation.  Thank you, Hillsong United, for another beautiful offering to our Father in heaven.

I would like to review the album with some positive comments and then some constructive feedback.  Hopefully it will bless the Church and worship leaders to be discerning about the songs they utilize in their worship services.

Positive Feedback:

What I love, more than anything else about Hillsong and Hillsong United recordings is their attempt to aurally capture the corporate worship setting.  The lead vocals are always very tucked, and one hears easily the swell of many voices (whether choir or congregation) coupled with lots of verb to give it that “in-house” feel (I know many of them are actually in-house and the reverb is actual house acoustics).  I also appreciate that they have an arsenal of different lead singers, helping play down the notion of a “celebrity frontman.”  Not every church has the resources to have multiple worship leaders and lead singers, but it’s a blessing when they do.

The musical production is outstanding.  It’s the unique, “signature” Hillsong sound, with creative electric guitar and synth work.  The electric guitar/synth line (at least that’s what I think it is) on the opening track has that beautiful tension of familiarity and uniqueness (oh, so enjoyable).

The album title is creative in its double-entendre, and therefore it’s a powerful umbrella to encapsulate a powerful album.

The best song on the album: “Desert Song.”  As a person who, even at a young age, has had to endure some heavy suffering, I have a tender spot in my heart for any song whose theme is, basically, “even when God has ordained suffering for me, yet I will praise Him.”  “Desert Song” does this.  More than that, “Desert Song” has a unique, yet singable melody and chord structure, and has a nice flow and movement.  We will be using “Desert Song” at our church.

Another great song: “Soon.”  The church needs more songs that focus on the eschaton.  We get so caught up in the now, and yet Christ’s resurrection and down payment of the Holy Spirit has sealed for us a future that we need to be continually aware of.  “Soon” does this.  Among modern worship songs, it is rare in its second-coming focus.  It’s a sweet, beautiful song.

(It’s interesting that the two songs I most like are sung by Brooke Fraser.  I can’t find who wrote these songs [come on Hillsong, don’t make it this hard], but my hunch is that she wrote these two.  Why?  She wrote “Hosanna,” which is full of biblical allusion and theological reflection.  And these two song seem to come from a similar mind.  In general, I find Fraser’s writing a cut above the other Hillsong lyricists.)

Constructive Criticism:

An overall observation of much of United’s material, across their many wonderful albums, is that their lyrics tend to be disjointed (logical coherence is one of my criteria for choosing worship songs…see my article on criteria).  From line to line, I sometimes have a hard time making the immediate logical connection.  I understand that some songs are intentionally “impressionistic” (such is the case with the hymn on our album, “Light After Darkness,” by Frances Ridley Havergal), but when it happens for much of the material, I have to pause and ask the question of how healthy it is for churches to speak to God with such hiccupped communication.  For instance, here’s verse 2 of “Freedom is Here:”

And everything comes alive

In my life as we lift You higher
Let Your freedom arise

In our lives as we lift You up

Sing it out

Sing it out

Your freedom is here

One CAN discern logical connection with all these phrases, but it’s just a bit haphazard and stream-of-consciousness.  Historically, that type of writing hasn’t made for strong and lasting worship songs.

Another overall observation of Hillsong United (and this may be more of an underlying theological difference between Assembly of God / Charistmatic theology and my convictions) is that they tend to be triumphalistic in their lyrics.   For instance in “More than Anything”:

Because I’ve seen Your light
You bring my world to life
I’m coming after Your love

I’m not shaken
I’m not letting go

As I’ve said about “Mighty to Save,” I just can’t in good conscience before God sing the Pre Chorus lyrics sincerely.  Because I know, no matter HOW far I’m down the journey of sanctification, I still have times where I AM shaken.  I still do have times where I slip and DO let go.  I can’t claim that kind of triumph.  It should be my ideal, but I can’t sing them honestly.

In general, Hillsong United could stand to have more biblical depth (with exception being the writing of Fraser, as noted above).  There’s nothing wrong with experiential lyrics, but United often teeters on being experiential to a fault, to the neglect of other things.  Thinking of worship from a congregational nourishment perspective, I wonder how nourished the United congregations are.  I know they’re inspired and even transformed by fresh waves of the Spirit, but are they nourished?  Is the intellectual side of their faith being nurtured?  Are their heads engaged AS MUCH AS their hearts? 

(I Head Revolution…I Brain Revolution…that would be a cool graphic)