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Sounds like … acoustic driven pop/rock that most resembles PFR's Joel Hanson or Jars of Clay, with worshipful parts that sometimes resembles Chris Tomlin, Shane & Shane, and the softer side of David CrowderAt a glance … despite some impressively honest and soul-searching lyricism, these songs lack the melodic and hook-laden punch of Brouwer's 2001 national debutTrack ListingA Simple PlanHere I Am AgainSurrenderUnlearningHomeUnfamiliarIf You StayI Shall BelieveYou AreWhy Can't We Be HonestWith Me and YouRedemption Hymn
Matt Brouwer is a long way from his rural Canadian home of Truno, Nova Scotia. After discovering a love for music late in high school, he attended Prairie Bible College in Alberta, where he started a contemporary worship service with Jill Paquette. Then he moved to Nashville after signing a deal with Reunion Records to release his acclaimed debut Imagerical, which scored a minor radio hit with "Water." The album ultimately didn't fare well enough to continue with Reunion, so Brouwer soon accepted an invitation from worship artist Chris Tomlin to follow him to Houston. There he found joy in grassroots ministry with Woodlands United Methodist Church by attending youth retreats, summer camps, mission trips, and of course, leading worship.
Many have eagerly anticipated a follow-up from Brouwer since 2001, but this too is a long way from Brouwer's origins. Unlearning was written from feelings of uncertainty in the time since Imagerical, so it's understandable why the songs are darker in tone. The closing "Redemption Hymn" is a good snapshot of what to expect—almost somber acoustic guitar accompaniment with words like, "I'm driving on empty, the night's closing in/And nothing can find me but you/I've been a sinner, I've hidden my face/And no one can find me but you/Here I am, take me back."
The songs on Imagerical were worshipful, but also honest and insightful. Brouwer's talent for forthright lyricism continues on Unlearning, but this time it's used more like a musical prayer journal for Psalm-like introspection instead of corporate worship. "A Simple Plan" is an abstract rejection of selfishness, and he responds to it with "Here I Am Again" by finding humility and security in God's boundless love. The title track is a candid search for deeper faith beyond the church walls and temporary experiences: "Has anybody ever gotten down from the picture perfect high back to solid ground/And lived to tell what they had seen from there/How everything looks different from way up in the air."
It's the change in sound that will challenge expectations. Whereas Imagerical was as heavily produced and hook-laden as a Michael W. Smith album, Unlearning takes a simpler and straightforward pop/rock approach more akin to PFR's Joel Hanson and the acoustic side of David Crowder. It's one thing to offer a more stripped-down sound due to lower production values, but the problem here is how listless several of the songs are, lacking the energy and catchiness of Brouwer's past work. Some effort is required to maintain focus on the songs. The worshipful and contemplative acoustic ballad "Home," for example, goes on for too long, and most of the album's instrumentation is similarly basic and sparse.
Still, it's a sound that lends itself well to both "Unfamiliar," a poignant tribute to Brouwer's father who died in a car accident when he was only three, and "If You Stay," written from a moment of spiritual yearning during a lonely drive through western Texas. There's also a terrific cover of Sheryl Crow's seeker anthem "I Shall Believe" that sounds a bit like Jars of Clay and features a duet with Kendall Payne. Additionally, initial copies of Unlearning include a bonus DVD with live performances, including a nice pairing of Todd Angew's "Grace Like Rain" with Lifehouse's "Everything."
The problem with Unlearning is that it's been stripped of many of the qualities that made Imagerical so good. Brouwer could potentially remedy that with his connection to Chris Tomlin—the thoughtfully disarming lyricism of the former would make a fine match to the melodic hooks of the latter.