Hillsong United, Aftermath (Sparrow)
Released: February 15, 2011
Within the “imprints” of the Hillsong brand (Hillsong, United, Live, and Kids), it is United which propels their style and artistry forward. In the case of Aftermath, their movement is a retro-progression (different from a retrogression) into 80s sounds and styles. This album is atypical of what has come before in that it feels much less like a “worship album.” The backing choir, congregational sound, and crowd noise are absent—it’s only solo voices and faint BGVs. There are no arena sounds and reverberant air. It is a clean, tight, studio album that appears to have been recorded on three different continents. I have no doubt that, because this is not an “arena worship” recording, there will be many Hillsong United fans at least initially disappointed. But this should not take away from the fact that Aftermath is a fabulous sonic feast, expanding our United palette with fresh tastes from the not-so-distant past.
If you are looking for new material for congregational singing, you’ve come to the wrong place. With some exception (e.g. “Rhythms of Grace”), though United undoubtedly uses these songs in their worship contexts, the melodic complexity of these songs lend themselves to performance-material rather than lifting voices in corporate worship. That said, Aftermath is still a well-produced, musical, and artistic achievement. Furthermore, the album is Christ-centered and God-exalting in its texts, though it suffers a bit from theological imprecision and scattered logical flow. If United’s goal was to provide the Church with more worship songs, I would say that previous albums (e.g. Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth and All of the Above) have done a better job at accomplishing that end. If their goal was to artistically stretch themselves and their listener-ship musically, they have succeeded greatly. No song stands out as one I would enthusiastically recommend for congregational worship, but many songs could be fitting.
The best way I can describe the unity of styles on this album is with the label “neo-80s space galactica punk.” It is as if Talking Heads, Enya, Green Day, and the creators of Tron all got together in a collaborative project. From Cars-like moog intros (“Light Will Shine”), to Top Gun-ish airy keys and staccato bass lines (“Nova”), to programming and legato lines mixed with Enya-style vocals (“Bones”), to pumping, tremolo synths (“Search My Heart”), United appears to be jumping on the 80s retro bandwagon that pop, rock, and hip-hop artists alike have been exploring as of late. United seems to be stepping off their penchant toward heavy tom-work in the drumming. “Rhythms of Grace” is a great example of this, where, at about the 3:20-marker, the drummer has chosen a creative, unorthodox, indie-style beat.
Track six, “b.e. (interlude),” gives a shout-out to Hillsong Live’s “Beautiful Exchange,” with the haunting choir in the background, singing,
Holy are You, God
Holy is Your Name
With everything I’ve got
My heart will sing, how I love You
Joel Houston, as Executive Producer and songwriter/co-songwriter for many of the tracks, is extremely talented and creative. This project seems to reveal that Houston was challenging himself with something different. This album is an enjoyable listen, with authentic artistry in the musicality and production from top to bottom.
That Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood had very little involvement with the album (the credits indicate that she sang BGVs) shows, especially in the songwriting. Ligertwood, especially in recent years, has provided a bit more biblical depth and theological reflection in her material. Aftermath has no “standout” song, textually speaking, which parallels the depth of “Desert Song” (Ligertwood) or “You Hold Me Now” (Morgan/Crocker) from United’s previous album, Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth (read my review of that album here). That said, Aftermath is beautifully Christ- and Gospel-centered. The unifying theme and song of the album, “Aftermath,” is a rich metaphor for how the Gospel reaches sinners in the beautiful mess of the incarnation of Christ:
The skies lay low where You are
On the earth You rest Your feet
Yet the hands that cradle the stars
Are the hands that bled for me
In a moment of glorious surrender
You were broken for all the world to see
Lifted out of the ashes
I am found in the aftermath
“Aftermath” implies that an important and decisive battle took place, yet the battle was not clean. This is a wonderful picture of the cross—the deepest love possible poured out, combined with the greatest injustice that ever took place. The cross is simultaneously a place of healing and a place of wreckage. “Aftermath” gathers all those concepts into one word filled with rich imagery, which is quite remarkable.
Especially against the backdrop of historic Christian hymnody and the biblical Psalms, United’s texts continue their general trend of being more “impressionistic” as opposed to logically coherent. Take, for instance, the opening verse and pre-chorus of “Go”:
In the Father there is freedom
There is hope in the Name that is Jesus
Lay your life down, give it all now
We are found in the love of the Saviour
We’ve come alive in You
Set free to show the truth
Our lives will never be the same
There isn’t much that helps these statements hang together in a logical progression, which ends up seeming more like mere emoting than making any cohesive statement in the song. The same song also exhibits the triumphalism that some have rightly criticized in the past:
We’re giving it all away, away
We’re giving it all to go Your way
We are sold out to Your calling
Certainly we need to make room for consecration. We should sing statements of commitment, even whole-hearted commitment. But I have dialogued with not a few folks who are weary of singing such words when they know that their sinful, broken hearts feel very inauthentic when such lyrics are sung. I admit myself that, much of the time, I don’t feel sold out to God’s calling; I don’t give it all to go God’s way. Such triumphal lyrics need to be administered in careful dosages, set in the context of Gospel-response and consecration as opposed to an “I’m trying, God! I can do it!” mentality. I’m not saying that this is what United has done or that this was the songwriter’s intent, but I am saying that too much of this can either drive people away or lead them to false senses of their own spiritual power and moral success. “Like an Avalanche” is a good counter-example to that issue of triumphalism, displaying consecration as Gospel-borne response:
Trading Your righteousness for shame
Despite all my pride and foolish ways…
Oh, take my life
Take all that I am
With all that I am I will love You
One other concern on the album is with some “Trinitarian confusion” in the song “Father” (I mention this issue in my article on my criteria for choosing worship songs.) A problem exists in evangelical worship that shows up more than we’d like to admit. There are times when our prayers or our songs can speak to or of one member of the Trinity about works or characteristics that really are attributed to another member. In “Father,” the following is sung:
Let heaven and earth collide in the endless wonder
Of Your love upon the cross
The collision of heaven and earth is most precisely a reference to the incarnation of Jesus, God the Son, the second member of the Trinity. Furthermore, though the Father’s love was certainly present at the cross, “Your love upon the cross” is a phrase one would expect to be singing to God the Son. But the whole chorus begins with the vocative, “Father,” indicating that what follows is addressed to Him. Hillsong has an incredible international platform, and because of that, they must be aware that they have the privilege of teaching and conveying both spirituality and theology to a broad swath of the Church catholic. Theological precision should be a high-priority analytical grid that they perpetually apply to their new material. The scope of their influence demands it.
I thank God for Hillsong United. Like never before, more tribes, tongues, and nations are unified in worship in ways previously unthinkable. God is using them to stir hearts, to promote justice, and to form people into the image and likeness of Christ. May God bear fruit for His kingdom through Aftermath.