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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews


  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2000 1 Jan

It's been seven years since one of my favorite artists, Billy Joel, has recorded an album with all new material. He's since retired from popular music in order to focus on composing classical music. I'm eagerly awaiting that classical music album, but it's been four years since his announcement, and still nothing new. Now focus on fellow piano man Michael W. Smith. Though he's considered doing an instrumental album for years, he did not publicly announce a project until earlier this year. But at least Smitty makes an announcement and BAM!, we see results. Granted, this is not classical music but instrumental soundtrack music, so it's arguably a little less complicated. Freedomis, nevertheless, a well made project that indicates a future second-career in movie soundtracks for Michael W. Smith.

Let me first address the critical issues. Some people are going to criticize Michael's latest project for not being a "Christian album." I hope I'm wrong about that, but the lack of lyrical content and the presence of music inspired by the Civil War probably will arouse skeptics. I, however, consider the project to be "God-inspired," and would refer people to Bob Briner's book Roaring Lambs for further thoughts on the matter. Then there are some people who consider Michael's music overly schmaltzy (and at times it can be). As a fan, I consider a lot of the music on Freedomhis "schmaltziest" yet, so Smitty's critics be warned. For those who enjoy Michael's music or instrumental movie soundtracks, they're really going to like this album. Freedom is almost like a professional demo, showing off a variety of styles of which Michael is capable.

There's a surprising cohesiveness to the first seven or eight tracks, because they share a cinematic feel (with a military and Celtic flair). Smitty's composing style is most reminiscent of works by James Newton Howard and James Horner, but it's not quite as memorable and grandiose as John Williams (though it comes close). The primary musical theme of the album is "Freedom," a piece inspired by a Civil War battle in Franklin, Tennessee, which sounds like something straight out of films like The Rockor The Patriot (or maybe even City Slickers). It's a beautiful, distinctly American melody that appears throughout the project. Another highlight is "Hibernia," a rollicking Irish-flavored piece featuring a big orchestra and lots of percussion. There are several beautiful piano pieces too, two of them ("Carol Ann" and "Prayer for Taylor") were written in tribute to friends who passed away in the last year.

Michael changes gears with the closing three tracks of the album, which have a more contemporary feel. There's a reworked version of "Thy Word," which is a little too Muzak-sounding but is nevertheless beautiful. "Free Man" is self-described by Michael as "Jeff Beck meets Michael W. Smith" — as apt a description as any, but it also reminded me of Phil Keaggy's tranquil electric guitar work. But my personal favorite from the album is "The Call," an instrumental pop/rock tune with a strong groove to it; the closest thing I can compare it to is a more rocking version of Michael's instrumental title track from the Exodusworship project.

Still in his early forties, Michael is no doubt looking to the future of his career. I don't think he's going to be able to run around on stage forever, but I may be proven wrong, as anyone who's seen his boundless energy will testify. Freedomis something of a musical experiment for Smitty. Now that we know that it was a successful experiment, we may in time look back on Freedom as the pivotal transition in Michael W. Smith's career from "mere songwriter" to composer.