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I have the utmost respect for Michael Card's lyrics and profound ideas, but musically he's always been for me a little, well, boring. I've never disliked his music, but because it's so adult contemporary, it's always left me a little sleepy. I'd rather listen to him in small doses than an entire album — ironic considering my love of concept albums and Michael's penchant for writing albums with songs that relate to a single book of the Bible or biblical idea. (There are a few exceptions, like Joy In the Journey and Unveiled Hope.) I say all this because Michael's latest, Soul Anchor, kept my attention the whole way through. There's something a little different this time around. That's not to say he's left his adult contemporary sound for alternative/punk-rock; the Dan Fogelberg sound is still there. This is simply Michael Card's most modern sounding album to date — a stark contrast to the folksy-Celtic feel of his last album, Starkindler.
Several tracks have a strong electric guitar presence that's been absent from his music until now, but I think Soul Anchor offers more than that. It has an improved level of songwriting, musically speaking, since Michael's lyrics have always been solid. The new sound is easily demonstrated in the new album itself. Michael makes a point of regularly re-recording one of his old songs on his new albums. Here, it's "He Was Heard"; though it benefits from nice production and is filled with smart theology, it's still classic Michael Card, and it shows its age by its musical inferiority. Contrast that with "By Faith," which is one of Card's most exciting songs ever. It sounds one step removed from the early Jars of Clay sound, and that's not necessarily because Dan Haseltine sings on the track. It's got a solid rhythm with nice guitars, a catchy melody, and a smart lyrical restatement of Hebrews 11.
There are plenty of other musical highlights. In the album's title track "Soul Anchor," which refers to the symbol used in Christianity before we started wearing crosses, Michael makes a bit of a "musical pun" by setting it to a peppy black gospel number; yes, I did use Michael Card and black gospel in the same sentence. "Seventh Sunrise" also has a gospel/church-pop feel to it, appropriate to its message about observing the Sabbath. "Never Will I Leave You" is a beautiful song about God's unfailing care for us. And "Fellow Prisoners" matches the somber subject matter of the persecuted church with dark, driving guitars and rhythm that recall the feel of Michael W. Smith's "Secret Ambition."
Soul Anchor closes with "Grace Be With You All," a beautiful rendition of the benediction that closes the book of Hebrews. It's certainly one of the most challenging books in the Bible; but just like his work with the book of Revelation for Unveiled Hope, he makes the complex easy to understand, and turns distress into encouragement. I think he should be equally praised for stretching artistically, and presenting us with an album that's not too unlike his past works, yet musically interesting and fun enough to find a home with a new audience.