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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews


  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Apr
Sounds like … the band's increasingly popular AC pop/rock sound, which recalls the likes of Steven Curtis Chapman, Train, Mike + The Mechanics, and yes, even a little bit of ColdplayAt a glance … MercyMe sometimes sounds like they're writing the same songs over and over again, but the quality production and willingness to energize their sound make Undone their most satisfying album yetTrack ListingWhere You Lead MeEverything ImpossibleHere With MeIn the Blink of an EyeUnawareHomesickWhen You Spoke My NameA Million Miles AwayCaught Up in the MiddleNever AloneUndoneShine OnKeep Singing

When reviewing MercyMe's 2002 album, Spoken For, I noted that no one could have expected the level of success they've enjoyed thanks to the smash hit, "I Can Only Imagine." That was 18 months ago. Little would anyone expect that this band from Greenville, Texas would be blessed even more, having since sold a total of more than 2 million albums between their platinum selling Almost There and the gold certified Spoken For. Additionally, "I Can Only Imagine" topped the Billboard singles chart for 11 weeks, thanks to AC pop and country radio airplay.

With great success comes more flexibility for artistic freedom, and as much as everyone would love for MercyMe to match or top the success of "Imagine," the pressure is generally off. Still, this is a band that wants to shed its pop ballad reputation. Despite an impressive live show over the last six months, they relied on cover songs to open (Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight") and close (U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name") the show. It's indicative of a desperate need for MercyMe to stretch itself sonically.

So here comes Undone, the band's third major release, produced once again by Pete Kipley, while utilizing a greater recording budget and adding second lead guitarist Barry Graul to the soft pop/rock mix. The result remains similar to the band's acoustic pop leanings occasionally colored with string orchestrations while touching on some Brit pop/rock influences as well. Think Steven Curtis Chapman and Train blended with some Mike + The Mechanics and Coldplay.

MercyMe doesn't quite come off as artful, energetic, or dynamic, but their sound is clearly better than ever. It's more apparent in a live setting, but Bart Millard is a tremendous vocalist, and the band has embraced a fuller pop/rock sound that makes things more interesting than their previous acoustic efforts. There are indeed some more upbeat songs to be found, such as "In the Blink of an Eye," "Caught Up in the Middle," and "A Million Miles Away." Yet while these tracks have a faster tempo, they don't establish MercyMe as much of a rock band. This is less a dramatic makeover than it is a fresh update to the wardrobe while keeping the same fashion sense—and that should suit fans of the last two albums just fine.

The songwriting, however, creates a sense of monotony. Millard's often referred to as a poetic lyricist, but it seems that more often than not that he's good for one original concept or phrase, surrounded by straightforward words of worship that are not especially unique. Past hits like "Spoken For" and the opening/closing lyric of "Word of God Speak" are both examples of this. The strange part is how the song-by-song explanations provided in Undone's CD booklet make the songs seem deeper than they really are. "Shine On" is implied to be about God's relevance in society today, yet the lyrics reveal it to be a basic "let your light shine" worship ballad.

The other critique with MercyMe is that they're beginning to sound like they're repeating themselves. The beautiful ballad "Homesick" is both similar to and an improvement on "Imagine," the difference in how it focuses on persevering on earth in anticipation of heaven. There's also the rich and melancholic piano-driven "Keep Singing," about pressing on and praising God in light of tragedy. It's understandable that there are new songs about loss and hope, considering Millard lost nine close friends and family members in 2003. But what about "Everything Impossible" and first single "Here with Me"? Both are worshipful songs that struggle with comprehending the mystery and enormity of God's love. Or "Unaware" and "Caught Up in the Middle," which both concern making everything else in life secondary to the Lord?

Together for a decade now, MercyMe has yet to display the artistic growth one would hope for after a string of successful tours, radio singles, and albums. Undone is closer to more of the same than the progressive new direction suggested by early buzz; it's enjoyable and accessible, but also safe and predictable. This band is clearly going to remain a mainstay in Christian pop, probably as successful as Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman, but I can only imagine what this band could accomplish if they had the creativity and originality to match that success.