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Sounds like … not too surprisingly, a lot like Michael's previous best-selling Worship album.At a Glance … what is surprising about Worship Again is that it's generally as good as Worship, and in many ways even better.
Let's start off with a clarification - I did not dislike Michael W. Smith's Worship album. It is undeniably an extremely well-made live recording of praise and worship, highlighted by lush arrangements, stirring worship atmosphere, and a handful of the best praise songs ever written. The platinum-selling Worship exposed these songs to thousands of listeners who weren't acquainted with such powerful expressions of praise as "Breathe," "The Heart of Worship," and "Open the Eyes of My Heart." It also helped a song called "Above All" by Paul Baloche and Lenny LeBlanc become as much a worship standard as those previously mentioned. The fact that Worship was released on September 11, 2001 can't be coincidental either, as it's been a source of comfort for those who have needed reminders that God is sovereign and loving. Indeed, Worship was the fastest-selling Christian album of 2001 and one of Michael's greatest successes as an artist – it earned Paul and Lenny a 2002 Dove Award for Best Inspirational Song, a Best Praise & Worship Album award, and a Best Artist Award for Michael. I'm as happy as anyone that Worship exceeded everyone's expectations and brought people closer to the Lord.
I would still surmise, however, that most people initially purchased Worship as fans of Michael's music, not as people hungry for worship music (which we're in no short supply of these days). Nevertheless, word of mouth about Worship spread and catapulted the album's success. My only gripe with the album is that it's not a particularly innovative or creative worship experience; it features several songs that have been performed just as well (if not better) on many other worship albums. So I have to confess I first listened to Worship Again with much skepticism. The artless title smacks of commercialism, spawning jokes of what Michael might name his next twenty worship projects (More Worship? Worship 3: Worship Returns?). The lack of creativity also extends to the album design, which features the exact same cover as Worship except for the color scheme; the back cover also looks the same as Worship, with the same photo of Michael at the piano with an up-raised hand. I was all set to review Worship Again like Worship … again. To my surprise, that's only half accurate. Michael and company have improved upon the successful formula of the Worship album. Worship Again does everything as well as the last album while improving on the few areas it fell short.
Worship was almost completely comprised of familiar songs we've heard before on other popular worship albums. In contrast, I was familiar with only half of the 12 live cuts on Worship Again, despite all the worship music I listen to. Worship only featured one original song by Smitty, the studio track "Purified," which was written with his wife Debbie. This time, Michael was responsible for five new songs on the album, including "You Are the Lord" (with Debbie's assistance) and "I Can Hear Your Voice" (written with Debbie and their daughter Whitney). Despite a strong opening call to worship, the previous album didn't end with a sense of finality, trailing off into the closing two studio tracks. Worship Again begins and ends like a true worship concert experience before segueing into three studio tracks. As cool as it was to have a guest choir of established Christian artists on Worship, it was also a little distracting since some of the voices stuck out prominently when they were improvising. It's not surprising because of the logistics that Worship Again doesn't feature a similar celebrity choir, but rather an equally talented group of background singers. Some may recognize Sarah McIntosh (Chasing Furies) in a duet with Michael on "Lord Have Mercy," which features Amy Grant instead on the studio version of the song (the album's first single).
As for the songs themselves, the selection is creative and original, but more importantly they're excellent expressions of contemporary worship. Worship arguably featured the better songs (hence why they're so well known), but don't think for a minute there's less to be appreciated here by worshippers and worship leaders alike. Besides, if you were introduced to worship through Michael's album, you're not going to know the difference. Steve Merkel's stunning "Lord Have Mercy" stands out in particular, and is equally enjoyable as a liturgical expression of confession and a contemporary inspirational song of worship. Traditionalist worshippers will also appreciate the hymn-like "Ancient Words," written by Lynn DeShazo. The Smith-family-penned "I Can Hear You" is highlighted by a lush orchestral pop arrangement and a richly romantic melody that sounds as if it came from Michael's Freedom album. Michael and Debbie's "You Are the Lord" is a pleasant Celtic-flavored anthem similar to their previous collaboration, "Great Is the Lord," as well as Chris Tomlin's "Famous One." Speaking of which, Michael does a fine rendition of Chris' "The Wonderful Cross," which is a contemporary reworking of the old him "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." You're probably familiar with Reuben Morgan's "I Give You My Heart" from Hillsong Worship (Darlene Zschech) and Smitty's familiar arrangement of Rich Mullins' "I See You" from the 1998 Exodus worship project.
Really, the only live track that doesn't work for me on Worship Again is "You Are Holy (Prince of Peace)," a fun worship song embraced by many for it's dueling male and female parts. The song always has sounded a little schizophrenic to me because the two parts don't compliment each other very well – it's impossible to simultaneously listen to both. But the track nevertheless energetically wraps up the live worship portion of the album, which is predominantly comprised of soft inspirational ballads. Then there are the three studio tracks, which are obviously included as a means of promoting the album via radio. In addition to the aforementioned "Lord Have Mercy," there's a predictable-but-effective pop rendition of Tim Hughes' "Here I Am to Worship" and the bonus track "There She Stands," a sweeping pop tribute to the American flag born out of the September 11 attacks. Closing a worship album with a patriotic song that has no lyrical connection to the Christian faith feels awkward to me. I suppose its inclusion is justified by the previous album's September 11 release date, but I wish Michael would have saved it for a separate disc or a future pop album.
Obviously, you need not bother with Worship Again if you weren't a fan of the Celtic-flavored inspirational pop/rock of the previous album. I've read several statements from Michael that express his deep satisfaction with leading and recording worship, and thus bringing the hearts of others closer to God. He's certainly excellent at it, and Worship Again is just another example of his gifts as an artist and a leader in the Christian music community. Still … I really miss Michael the pop artist and the promise of Michael the soundtrack composer. He's not old enough to completely retire from his songwriting career. Should he decide to record Worship Forever or Keep on Worshipping, I hope he'll continue to gravitate toward original expressions of worship.