Artist: Phil Wickham
Title: The Ascension
Label: Fair Trade Services

Please allow me to break the fourth wall and admit that, despite my status as a frequent Christian music reviewer, I had not heard popular worship-centered artist Phil Wickham until now—even though his previous studio albums have gained plenty of attention. Furthermore, if any of those efforts are on par with the guy’s fifth set, The Ascension, I may have some back catalog shopping to do, because this one does a really fine job combining a biblically informed idea, ambitious melodies, and musical relevance.

Thematically, Phil cites the Songs of Ascent in Psalms 120-134 as the inspiration for The Ascension. Scholars believe those passages were sung by the Jews when they would ascend to the Holy Temple several times each year for festivals celebrating God’s presence on earth. Wickham writes new songs of ascent here to encourage churches today in that same regard. The opening title track does this with ease: imagine Kevin Max fronting Mumford & Sons in a faith-pumping, crowd-stirring sing along that still feels fresh despite those well-trod audio comparisons, and you’re almost there.

Further escalating the energy level, “Holy Light” adds some electronic thump not too far removed from Coldplay’s recent Mylo Xyloto, but again sounds more authentic than imitative thanks to Phil’s passionate performance. “Carry My Soul” sings of chasing your heart just like David did, reminding us of the constant pursuit that runs throughout The Ascension. First single “This Is Amazing Grace” is duly solid in a modern worship anthem way, but it can’t outshine those less obvious three tracks that preceded it.

Indeed, Wickham is at his best when The Ascension plays like nothing else in the crowded worship market. The acoustic “Mercy” finds creative melodic twists and is especially strong in its stripped down arrangement. “Tears of Joy” bears influences from the current folk movement but mixes it up with a completely unexpected saxophone passage. The song’s repeating hook—let my last breath here be the first with You—speaks again to an earth dweller’s desire to be nearer to God.

Closing number “Thirst” beats them all as a commercially popular artist lets his voice soar with the Spirit’s leading and drifts with abandon alongside his band into an exploratory, early ‘90s shoegazer-like jam that really does reach new heights for this genre. This kind of worship music can take you higher.

*This Review First Published 9/16/2013