Sounds like … the classic adult contemporary pop that Grant was known for in the '90s, created with current pop techniquesAt a Glance … though it perhaps lacks some of the depth listeners were hoping for, there is still plenty of emotional resonance to be found on this long overdue and wonderfully produced pop project
It's been six years since Amy Grant last released an album of all new pop material. Imagine how many artists' careers have come and gone in that time. Which is not to say that the first lady of Christian pop has been idle, with a Christmas album and a hymns project since 1997's Behind the Eyes. There's also been a whirlwind of activity in her private life—a divorce, a marriage, a blending of families, and a new daughter. While those things have been the primary focus of Grant's energy, her music was never far from her mind. And now at last comes Simple Things, her first personal work since her very public divorce—the biggest controversy of her career.
What should one expect musically from an artist who has been so long absent? I assumed she might continue the acoustic pop sounds of Behind the Eyes, or perhaps even gone a little more country due to the influence of husband Vince Gill, a country music veteran. While there's a little of the Behind the Eyes sound here, the album also resembles 1991's Heart in Motion and 1994's House of Love, but more current sounding; synth-driven pop is still a thing of the past. Produced in part by many long-time collaborators (Brown Bannister, Ron Hemby, Wayne Kirkpatrick), primary producer Keith Thomas' influence is most evident; he co-wrote Grant's hit "Baby Baby" and has since produced for young pop artists like Mandy Moore and 98 Degrees.
As such, this is adult contemporary pop with plenty of modern bells and whistles. The title track in particular sounds like something from Mandy Moore, Jump5, or even Britney Spears—with programmed drums, record scratches, clipped electric guitar effects, and an extremely sunny sounding chorus. "Eye to Eye" prominently features a warbly backing vocal (by teen Katy Hudson) reminiscent of R&B pop artists, but also not unlike the synthetic sounds Michael W. Smith once brought to Grant's music. Aside from those two tracks, it's Grant's familiar pop sound with the glossiest treatment that modern recording techniques and a big budget can provide.
It makes sense that thematically this album alternates between the brokenness of Behind the Eyes and the joyfulness of Heart in Motion. Simple Things seems to be a catharsis for Grant, half of it focused on lovey-dovey stuff. The album even picks up where she left off in '97, opening with the line "I want to look behind your eyes" in "Happy," a celebration of marital bliss and true love that runs deeper than the surface. Like Rebecca St. James' "Wait for Me," Grant waxes romantically over the lifelong search for true love in "Looking for You." She sings a sweet duet with Vince on "Beautiful," a power ballad that wasn't written by either of them, but could just as easily be autobiographical with them singing about the joys and pains they've gone through. Grant seems very happy with her family life, and these are the songs that will most likely find their way to mainstream radio.
It's the gutsier songs on Simple Things that will resonate most with Christian audiences, and they help put the romantic songs in perspective. "Eye to Eye" is a plainspoken plea for reconciliation "before darkness falls," with Grant relying on faith by saying that "the fruit that gives me strength to live is giving strength in you." She similarly clings to her faith when facing tragedy in "I Don't Know Why," which doesn't offer answers when there aren't any: "So I face the unfamiliar and nothing is clear/Only binding faith can carry me from here." The bittersweet "Innocence Lost" almost sounds like a Celtic hymn, conveying a spiritual journey that Grant did not write yet capturing her thoughts and feelings from the last five years. "Out in the Open" is a portrait of one grateful for the freedom of forgiveness, and the closing track, "After the Fire," recreates an image of a young Grant performing on the acoustic guitar, reminding us that our trials are all part of God shaping our lives.
The album's central themes are stated clearly in the chorus of the title track: "I dream of simple things I can believe in/Like the feeling this day brings/True love and the miracle of forgiving." Yet for all that Grant accomplishes here, it falls just short of her best work. It might have been more impressive if she and the producers came up with an album that more deeply expressed Grant's life, showing her spiritual journey as a five-year progression instead of simply alternating between songs of fluffy romance and simple confession. It may not be Lead Me On, but Simple Things gives fans what they've been waiting for—another well-crafted pop album of simple love songs and glimpses of Amy Grant's much intact faith.