Sovereign Grace, Prepare Him Room
The music of Sovereign Grace always has to be included among the top content out there being written for the modern church. They’ve been doing it for years, and they’ve been committed to engaging lyrics, profound theology, and a dogged Christocentrism. Their new Christmas album, Prepare Him Room, does not disappoint their legacy. In fact, I think the production on this record is some of the finest to date. The instrumentation and melodies are beautiful, the arrangement of some traditional carols and hymns are fresh and fitting (I love what they’ve done with the underlying structures of “O Come All Ye Faithful”), and the new texts are incredible contributions (ones that I hope are lasting) to the hard-to-expand corpus of Advent and Christmas songs. If you read the credits, you become very aware that the albums sound and style is largely due to their producer, Neil Degraide, who seems to know how to play almost every instrument, and play each well. Every part is tasteful and purposeful, and the choices are unconventional but not jarringly quirky. The arrangements are sophisticated and creative. I love listening to this album, and I will love introducing these songs to our people.
Really, all the songs are excellent. Here are the ones that keep jumping out at me:
Come All Ye Faithful: Again, I love the arrangement and progression choices underlying the classic melody (esp. the ii-vi under “behold him”). They expand/elongate the final line, “O come, let us adore him…” and while I think it’s awesome, if I were to lead this congregationally, I’d be inclined to shrink it back so that people don’t trip up. I don’t think it destroys the integrity of the arrangement to do this.
God Made Low: Unless things change, I’m planning on introducing this fabulous new song to Coral Ridge this Advent. It’s an epic song, and the chorus summarizes the song’s explication of the incarnational paradox:
Emmanuel has come to us
The Christ is born, Alleluia!
Our God made low to raise us up
Emmanuel has come to us
Who Would Have Dreamed: Wow. Powerful. The Chorus:
Who would have dreamed or ever foreseen
That we could hold God in our hands
The Giver of life was born in the night
Revealing God’s glorious plan
To save the world
There Blooms a Rose in Bethlehem: I have always desperately wanted the traditional hymn “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” to be a little easier for congregations to sing, not many Advent songs say what it says. Neil Degraide has rewritten its words and melody but kept the essence…and I think the song is actually better. This song is nice for congregations and choirs…very lyrical.
The Unbelievable: A perfect way to begin a Christmas service…an invitation to come and see the One who will “Heal the unhealable” (what a line!). I love this song.
Cardiphonia, Songs for the Incarnation
Church music is always in need of needle-movers and boundary-pushers. Cardiphonia continues to be one of these entities with its eclectic output, exemplified in its latest, Songs for the Incarnation. Music which sounds unconventional often causes us to think and emote differently…it’s one of the great gifts of how art takes the soul places it wouldn’t normally want or think to go. In this anthology, Cardiphonia has gathered 20+ artists and commissioned them with re-setting a bunch of forgotten gems of Advent hymnody. Not all songs are congregational, but they’re all edifying and a great way to engage the season this December. In Cardiphonia’s post on the album, they thank the artists for “stretching even their own conceptions of what constitutes music of the ‘season.'”
Songs I’m really digging:
JG Hymns’ “In the Night a Heavenly Song Came Down”: Nothing on this track sounds copied or imitated. Everything from from its swung groove, to mixed meter, to its minor-to-major shifts, to its glassy vocals, to its space-age FX, to its swanky horns: it’s just simply awakening, like smelling salts for the soul…which is, well, what the incarnation was!
Holy City Hymns’ “Love Came Down at Christmas”: I love this simple arrangement of a great hymn, and it is supremely singable for congregations.
Jered McKenna’s “Hark a Burst of Heavenly Music”: I’m a sucker for groove. And I’m a sucker for slap-happy crisp, disco-pop electrics paired with strings. Takes me to a a Jackson-Fiveian place of innocence and freedom. 🙂
Coastland Commons’ “In the Bleak Midwinter”: I love this very haunting arrangement of this now classic tune to a classic Christmas poem.
Michael Van Patter’s “Jesus Came, Jesus Comes”: The text of this song is incredible, paring Christ’s first advent with the “personal Advent” of our experiencing of His coming to us in salvation.
Also check out the many different versions and twists on the Magnificat…music has a way of refreshing old meditations.
My Contribution: “Come See a Child of Low Estate”
Being in South Florida, the land of EDM, I’ve been listening to a lot of dance music. I’ve also been in conversation with a new friend, Alf Bishai, a NYC-based artist and composer who is taking a serious stab at exploring the intersection of EDM and worship music (support his work here!). The sum total of all of this is my own desire to see how the genre’s strong suits can speak into how the church sees, understands, and expresses her worship. And I believe EDM has something to offer (I’ve offered some theological reflection here). So…this song was my attempt at melding an Avicii-inspired style with a riveting old text. My friend, Dan Diaz, mixed it. Hope you like it!
Even if you don’t care for the recording or style, it’s flexible and could be done it a bluegrass or rock format with a lot of integrity, I think. Set down a step or two, and it’s in the congregation sweet spot.
One final thought: A great experiment in what songs can do to the character and affect of a text would be to listen to my version alongside Karl Digerness’ equally wonderful (but different) version of the same text. Ask how the nuances of the text and its message change with the musical setting. Answering that question starts to poke at how music joins text to create (not just accompany) meaning.