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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Deeper Life

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Feb
Deeper Life
Sounds like … the powerhouse "pop diva" adult contemporary of such artists as Celine Dion, Avalon, Mariah Carey, and Jaci Velasquez.At a Glance … superior production and performances elevate what some would consider a typical Christian pop album.

In a relatively short time Natalie Grant has earned a reputation for three things rather unique to her five-year career. First, she's released every album on a different record label. Both Benson and Pamplin have since closed their doors — "the curse" will likely end with Curb, which is relatively secure under the wings of Warner Brothers' Christian Music Division. Second, the Seattle-born artist is well-known for her protestations about being labeled a "pop diva." There is typically a negative connotation to the "d"-word that flies in the face of Natalie's humble servant attitude and her desire to focus her music on the goodness of God. Unfortunately for her, the diva label is an apt description of her musical styling, which leads into the third unique trait. Despite her diminutive size, Natalie has an impressively big voice with enough nuance to hold her own among any of the classic pop divas (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, take your pick), earning her multiple Dove nominations for Female Vocalist of the Year.

Undeterred by collapsing record labels and pop music stereotypes, Natalie admirably presses on with Deeper Life, her third effort, by stretching her own artistic skills. Her previous album, Stronger (released in 2001), featured her first attempts at songwriting by co-writing a handful of tracks. On Deeper Life, she co-writes nearly every song. Additionally, Natalie steps up as co-producer of this album, joining a slew of A-list pop producers and songwriters: Tommy Simms (CeCe Winans, Anointed), Eric Foster White (Jessica Simpson, Whitney Houston), Bryan Lenox (Michael W. Smith, Ronnie Freeman), Bernie Herms (Plus One), and Rob Graves (songwriter and guitarist on Joy Williams's By Surprise). The approach on this project was to create an album that relied less on programmed pop and more on live musicians, and the results are indeed stunning. I daresay this is Natalie's best-sounding album yet.

But we must keep it in perspective. This is still R&B-flavored adult contemporary pop a la Mariah Carey, Jaci Velasquez, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson, and many others. It is most certainly not (as suggested by the press bio) the classic rock sound of Sheryl Crow or the modern pop/rock of Avril Lavigne. Christian adult contemporary and inspirational pop speaks for itself — some find it meaningful and poignant, while others find it clichéd and boring. In that spirit, the songs of Deeper Life are best explored for what they are — you'll know by the titles, lyrics, and styles if this music matches or offends your tastes.

"I Will Be," about letting our light shine as Christians, features some especially fine production, building on a vocal hook reminiscent of Point of Grace — "I will be a candle in the darkness / I will be the hand of heaven above / I will be a mirror that reflects Your endless love." The superb Latin and R&B dance groove of "Love Without Limits" will surely impress fans of J. Lo and Jaci Velasquez, as Natalie sings of God's endless love — "There's no mountain that's too steep there's no ocean that's too deep / Nothing can keep Him from us / He's the lover of our soul / He's the one that makes us whole."

The soulful, modern R&B sound of "Salvation," a simple song of evangelism, features one of Natalie's finest vocal performances, in which she holds her own against Destiny's Child and Mariah Carey. Then there's "I Desire," an outstanding pop ballad that's impressive all around — the melody, the key changes, the orchestration, everything. Simply about the desire to know God more and live a life to glorify him, it's one of the best pop productions I've heard since Avalon's "The Glory."

The title track begins with the beautiful and soulful sounds of some excellent backup singers as it unfolds into Avalon-styled dance pop in its expression of a more meaningful relationship with the Lord — "I need a deeper life where the love of God runs far and wide I need a deeper life, I will give Him all my heart and mind." The power ballad "Within Me" also recalls Avalon, with Natalie communicating the unfailing peace of God by singing, "All of my doubts disappear / There's nothing to fear / Your love's within me." Ditto for sound and subject in "I Am Not Alone" — "You walk beside me, giving strength I've never known/ And I am not alone / You walk beside me / I am not alone / Wherever the road leads."

The perky, sunshine sounds of "Days Like These" is standard Christian adult contemporary, with Natalie reminding us to live the life God has planned for us every day. The same theme is found in "Live for Today," propelled by bouncy pop/rock shuffle that might be the source of comparisons to Avril Lavigne or Jennifer Knapp. "No Sign of It" features an excellent soulful pop sound, a cross between Avalon and Diana Ross — "No sign of any rain / My skies are clear today … I keep thinking I might see that cloud arrive / But there's no sign of it."

Responses are sure to be mixed concerning "Always Be Your Baby," a ballad written for Natalie's dad. Some will think it's too syrupy and others will love it and it'll become the next daddy-daughter anthem at wedding receptions — "The way you love me made me who I am in this world / I'm a woman now, not a little girl / Wherever this life takes me, I'll always be your baby." The album's only sure misfire is "That's When I'll Give Up," an amateurish dance pop song riddled with pop clichés that reference the day when Natalie will stop loving her husband — "When the sun is coming up at midnight … when it's raining up instead of down … when a dream can't come true" and so on.

That track aside, this is a very well produced and performed R&B-tinged pop album. It does fall prey to the shared pop sounds of Avalon, Point of Grace, and Jaci Velasquez, and doesn't distinguish Natalie as much as Joy Williams on her recent By Surprise album, for example. Nevertheless, there's no getting around Natalie's vocal prowess or the superior production, which means you're bound to be impressed with Deeper Life if you enjoy first-rate pop.