- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2006 1 Oct
- Something Better
- My Prayer
- Fly Fall Fly
- Because of You
- Come Around Again
- Sleeping Fire
- To Believe
- The Noise Inside
- The End
- Bear With Me
- Real For Me
- Storm Is Gone
- Invisible Light
Show of hands, please. How many of you know the name Adam Watts? Yeah, I was afraid of that, though chances are you're familiar with some of his work without even knowing it.
A regular worship leader at California's Saddleback Church, Watts co-wrote and produced on the first three projects from Jeremy Camp, as well as albums from Camp's wife Adie and fellow Saddleback-ian Jadon Lavik. Moreover, he's written and produced for mainstream teen sensations Jesse McCartney (including the hit "Beautiful Soul"), Aly & AJ, and Hannah Montana. And if that wasn't enough, his contract with Disney led to participation as a writer/producer for the TV movie blockbuster High School Musical, its soundtrack the top-selling album of 2006.
An impressive resume for sure, though not one that fully reveals the creative depths that Watts is capable of, especially after listening to his more mature sounding solo work. The Noise Inside, his debut through BEC Recordings, was released with little fanfare, but was strong enough for us to name Watts one of the Best New Artists of 2004. His independently released sophomore effort proves the first album was no fluke. In fact, it's even better … and no, it sounds nothing like High School Musical.
What makes Sleeping Fire so good? The short answer is Watts does everything right as a Christian artist. He's the complete package—an inventive producer, an intelligent songwriter, and a talented multi-instrumentalist who performs most of the album himself. The guitars are the most impressive element, and while Matt Rodriguez handles most of the solos, Watts' gorgeous fingerwork in "To Believe" is no less captivating.
Often the least interesting artists are those that too closely emulate another act—the best are rarely pegged to just one sound. Don't judge Watts by the first track, though "Crawl" is certainly a good alt-rock opener. "Something Better" sounds like the sort of modern Beatle-esque that PFR would have recorded, and "My Prayer" is a driving rocker worthy of Switchfoot or Jimmy Eat World. Later, Watts almost evokes Soundgarden with the bluesy neo-grunge of "Storm Is Gone." But there are also haunting ballads to be found, and "Invisible Light" is particularly striking with its inventive acoustic style.
Watts' vocalizing is equally varied. Most of the time, his sweetly lilting tenor is reminiscent of Morten Harket (a-ha)—overall, he's stylistically comparable to that band's refined pop/rock—and a falsetto that brings to mind Chris Martin (Coldplay). Yet he's also capable of offering the occasional rock yowls similar to Jon Foreman (Switchfoot) or Chris Cornell (Audioslave).
And there's something to be said for this guy's crafty song structuring. The album is chock full of exquisite melodies ("Fly Fall Fly," "Because of You"), but they don't always play out predictably. Listen to the way "Bear with Me" plausibly takes a left turn with a minor chord when you expect a major, and visa versa. Even something relatively simple like shifting the rhythmic feel to half time for the chorus in "Crawl" stands out, only because most artists today don't put as much thought into the creative process.
But perhaps most admirable is the way Watts creatively articulates faith without resorting to vague subtleties. Though it never directly says so in as many words, the title track is clearly a metaphor for rekindling of faith. "To Believe" depicts the nature of belief about as well as any song I've heard—"Seeing isn't believing/Doesn't the mirror hide the truth?/Hearing isn't receiving, is it?/The echo dies alone."
For as often as Christian artists struggle with it, Watts excels at expressing a distinctive personality. His Psalm-like "Come Around Again" is a delightfully unique plea for restoration—"I've been kicked in the faith/See the bruise/I've been stretched to the fray/I've been used and I've used/Will You move the dirty earth I'm under/Wash the mud from this soul?" Some might even say it's too unconventional after listening to "The End" and its strangely puerile-but-honest musings about surrender—"I need to deny myself/Give my Lord above the reigns/Do it different this time and follow His holy way…What would suck is if I win/Miss a prayer I didn't pray/The one that got away."
I don't pretend that this album will be widely embraced. It's well produced, but unlike Jeremy Camp and High School Musical, it isn't glossy. Though accessible in its artiness and current sounding, the music isn't tied to a trend. It won't earn airplay on Christian radio, and it's unavailable in stores. (You can listen to some songs at Watts' site, order it through CD Baby, and download it at iTunes.)
But quality and excellence abounds in every aspect of Sleeping Fire—packaging included. For those who appreciate smart songcraft, skilled musicianship, and creative wordings of faith, Adam Watts impresses on all counts with what we can only hope will be regarded a sleeper hit.