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A New Hallelujah

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2008 1 Oct
A New Hallelujah
Sounds like … a varied blend of worshipful pop styles the echo the work of Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, Delirious, and Israel Houghton, not to mention congregations like Hillsong and New LifeAt a glance … mixing new originals with well-known favorites by other artists, A New Hallelujah is on par with Michael W. Smith's previous best-selling worship projects, even though stretches of the album are somewhat repetitive and simplisticTrack Listing Intro Prepare Ye the Way A New Hallelujah When I Think of You Mighty to Save Shout Unto God Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) Deep in Love with You Healing Rain / Let It Rain Majesty I Surrender All Grace Intro to Help Is on the Way Help Is on the Way The River Is Rising

It's time that longtime fans of Michael W. Smith accept that the pop star of the '80s and '90s is gone (though certainly not forgotten). Sure, he still plays classics like "Friends" and "This Is Your Time" in concert, but we shouldn't expect albums like i2eye or Go West Young Man anytime soon. With the turn of the century, it's as if Smitty said farewell to the pop pursuits of his early career to focus on the projects closest to his heart: instrumental scores and worship music.

And why shouldn't he? It's not as if the guy hasn't earned the right to record whatever he wants after 25 years. Besides, if a return to pop means a disappointing project like 2006's Stand, then perhaps it's best Smith sticks to worship music. He's obviously very good at it, having planted a church where he regularly leads. Fans seem to agree, having made 2001's Worship and its 2002 sequel Worship Again two of his biggest selling albums.

So if there's anything surprising that Smith is back to worship music, it's that it took him 6 years to do so. A New Hallelujah is closer in feel to the second Worship album than the first, relying more heavily on original material (half the album in this case) than well-established worship favorites. As much as he loves worship music, Smith has often admitted that it's hard to find great worship songs in Christian music, but to his credit, he's zeroed in on some great ones here, namely Chris Tomlin's reworking of "Amazing Grace" and Hillsong's "Mighty to Save."

One thing I appreciate most about Smitty's approach to worship music is his ability to maintain a sense of artistry while keeping the music congregational friendly. The pop star's showmanship is very much alive and well in his arrangements and performances, but as with Tomlin, he still keeps the audience in mind to keep them singing along in praise. Like the multi-artist Exodus project that he recorded and produced 10 years ago, Smith instantly grabs your attention with the massive percussion of this album's "Intro," leading into the accessible worship pop of "Prepare Ye the Way." A catchy song, for sure, even though it's a rather simplistic and repetitive Psalm adaptation, but then music has always been Smith's strong suit over lyrics.

That generally holds true for the other original tracks, the best being the title cut, written with Smith's wife Debbie and worship writer extraordinaire Paul Baloche ("Above All," "Open the Eyes of My Heart"). Backed by The African Children's Choir, the song is a perfect combination of worship, pop, and mission set to a steady, anthemic stomp that's readily singable and lyrically purposeful. "Deep in Love with You" is nearly as good—a simple love song to the Father that's stylistically in keeping with Smith's original pop balladry. Though there's not much to it lyrically, there are flashes of depth in lines like "I enter through the curtain, parted by Your grace."

The other new songs are more mixed. "When I Think of You" is a lot of fun, driven by an African pop feel reminiscent of Paul Simon's Graceland and some of Smitty's earlier work, but the Sunday School lyrics are rather puzzling—we can certainly imagine Yahweh singing and dancing, but does he really pray? "The River Is Rising" bursts with the rocking energy of Delirious, but the lyrics about overflowing with praise and dancing seem derivative and forgettable by comparison. And a short arrangement of "I Surrender All" sets the hymn to a new Smith-styled melody that's not as strong as the original, but it's does gain poignancy when guest vocalist Coalo Zamorano sings a verse in Spanish.

Interestingly, each of Smith's worship albums has a distinct flavor. The first was an AC-friendly compilation of the biggest modern worship anthems at the time, while the second took a more reverential, almost liturgical tone overall. A New Hallelujah tends to rock out a bit more, but it's also the most charismatic and repetitive of Smith's worship projects. An already long rendition of "Mighty to Save" (as definitive as any you'll hear) segues into Hillsong United's "Shout Unto God" chant (heard on Stand), and it's pretty cool even if it's the same words over and over. Smith later gravitates toward an inspired pairing of his "Healing Rain" chorus with the "Let It Rain" chant of the first Worship album, followed by the refrain from Delirious' "Majesty"—all good and inspiring, but some more songs with verses and greater depth would have provided welcome contrast by album's end.

Nevertheless, Smith knows how to make a strong worship album that's well-paced, varied, and poignant, not to mention well-performed by all involved—Michael Olson is a capable singer/songwriter in his own right on Smitty's Rocketown label, but he distinguishes himself as a terrific drummer here. In the future, it'd interesting to hear Smith try a worship album in studio again, not unlike Exodus. It might be a better way to bridge his pop and worship sensibilities in a more creative way. So while A New Hallelujah doesn't live up to Smith's best days as a pop artist, it certainly measures up to his work as a worship artist, further establishing him as one of the best in Christian music—and one who's at his best when doing what he loves most.

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