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What a Heart Is Beating For

  • reviewed by Andree Farias Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 1 Jul
What a Heart Is Beating For
Sounds like … David Wilcox and James Taylor, but as performed by the likes of Jamie Cullum and John Mayer.At a glance … thoughtful, seeker-sensitive, and more relatable than ever, Chris Rice's What a Heart Is Beating For continues what he already started with 2005's Amusing.Track Listing So Much for My Sad Song
What a Heart Is Beating For
Pardon My Dust
Love Is Gonna Break Through
You Don't Have to Yell
Punch Lines and Ironies
Here Come Those Eyes
Let the Words Escape
Sneakin' Into Heaven
Tell Me the Story Again
Kids Again
Baby Take Your Bow

There was a time when Chris Rice seemed poised to become the next Michael W. Smith or Steven Curtis Chapman. The year was 1999 and he had just edged out both Christian music veterans to become Male Vocalist of the Year at the Gospel Music Association's Dove awards. Not that Rice's voice was ever remarkable or anything, but he had other qualities that made him likeable. He was a youth leader, a superb singer/songwriter, and a Christian radio darling thanks to early signature hits "Deep Enough to Dream" and "Hallelujahs."

That all changed (to some extent) when Rice left Rocketown Records, his label home of ten years. Amusing, his first album for eb+flo Records (an imprint he co-owns with production partner Monroe Jones) was as acclaimed as anything he'd put out in his decade-old career, but it was not exactly a Christian music smash. The disc failed to generate any significant hits, high-profile tours, or awards in the faith-based arena like his previous efforts. What was he doing differently?

Well, for starters, Rice toned down the God talk while incorporating some love songs into the repertoire. Which isn't to say he went secular, but while Amusing was very much informed by his convictions, it wasn't necessarily about them. This was an intentional move on his part to be more "missional" with his music, appealing to individuals who would never be caught dead listening to more inspirational fare like "Cartoons." In a sense, Rice's ministry vision changed.

The efforts paid off when Rice's lovey-dovey "When Did You Fall" became an unexpected Top 10 mainstream hit, opening new avenues for his music to get heard. The song's success and newfound audience became the breeding ground for What a Heart Is Beating For, the tunesmith's second eb+flo collection and first released in conjunction with general-market partner Columbia Records.

Now with a bigger platform, Heart could easily be Rice's most universal album yet. Instrumentally, the singer is distancing himself even further from the unassuming acoustic-pop vibe of his earlier recordings, opting for a sound that relies more on piano and ambiance for a more aggressively alternative folk-pop vibe. The pensive title track, for instance, consists of a lonesome electric guitar and an insistent drum cadence that grows louder as the track progresses, as if Rice is borrowing from the Brit-pop playbook.

That's not a knock. The track is a terrific example of how far Rice has come over the years, adopting a style that's less adult contemporary and more adult alternative. Think James Taylor by way of John Mayer, David Gray or Jamie Cullum—sometimes all at once. Rice is adept at flirting with jazz for one minute ("Pardon My Dust"), only to switch to classic troubadour the next ("Baby Take Your Bow") without skipping a beat.

With that broader soundtrack the anchor of this album, it's strange then to hear Rice go back to his more light-hearted side, even if it's just occasionally. The happy-go-lucky "So Much for My Sad Song" and the bouncy "Kids Again" are trademark Chris Rice, but they're by no means representative of the whole album.

Overall, What a Heart is much more serious and solemn by comparison (making the repeat appearance here of the ultra-cheesy "Lemonade" from Amusing all the more puzzling). In keeping with Rice's new songwriting approach, Heart goes straight for the heart of wayward sons, (hopeful) lovers, mourners, and the downcast. It also strongly addresses religious stone-throwers ("Pardon My Dust") and politicians ("You Don't Have to Yell"), though Rice isn't one to point fingers. He simply reminds us we're all in the same boat, and it's hard to take offense to such a laid-back and modest demeanor.

Listen closely, and you'll still hear a heart that burns for the gospel. Recalling Rice's beloved "Welcome to Our World," the hymn-like "Tell Me the Story Again" is a simple tune about one of the greatest truths in the Christian faith: humanity's sinful nature and its dire need for redemption. Such is Rice's way with words, taking the complex canon of righteousness by faith and making it digestible through the clear-cut narrative of a boy who gets past the heavenly gates thanks to a borrowed halo ("Sneakin' Into Heaven").

It's hard to predict how well Heart will sit with its target demographic, but it's so well written, thoughtfully produced, and poignantly performed that it's nearly impossible to dislike. Rice himself has proven he can't write a bad song, and that alone only increases the appeal of the album. Maybe not in terms of sales success, but at least in its ability to further connect with those who already know Rice as one of the premiere songwriters in Christian music.

© Andree Farias, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.