Sounds like … the roots rock/pop of Train, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Newsong combined with vertical lyricsAt a Glance … time will tell if Mercy Me can pull off another hit as huge as "I Can Only Imagine," but Spoken For is a much more cohesive and engaging pop album than Almost There.
Last year, some little-known long-time independent Christian band by the name of Mercy Me released its national debut on INO Records and had a little success with a song from the album. Perhaps you're familiar with it: "I Can Only Imagine"?
Okay, so I'm being a little facetious. The truth is there are probably few alive who haven't heard the song, between extensive radio play (four weeks at #1), three Dove Awards, and a high profile cover of the song by Amy Grant (as well as Rita Springer). I think it's reasonable to say the success of "I Can Only Imagine" is analogous to Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses" five years ago. In the same way, people rushed to buy Mercy Me's Almost There, primarily for that song. The frenzy helped make Mercy Me the best-selling and fastest-selling new Christian artist of 2001, certifying the album's Gold status in less than a year. Since it's still a high seller on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, it's almost certain to achieve Platinum status within the next couple years. Mercy Me truly has come "out of nowhere" since the summer of 2001, going from an independent band with a fairly strong grassroots following to one of Christian music's best-selling artists today.
Few if anyone predicted this level of success for the band, and it makes me wonder if most of those who bought Almost There have become ardent fans of Mercy Me and their album, or if they just love that now-famous song about what it'll be like in heaven. Though I certainly didn't dislike Almost There, it didn't strike me as that different from the other praise and worship albums available today — little did I know. However, I've spoken with fans with reactions that range from calling Almost There the best album of last year and others who only enjoyed it for "I Can Only Imagine." It's probably telling that the album only spawned the solitary runaway hit, with nary a hit single since. Part of this is due to the longevity of the song, which stayed in heavy rotation for a good ten months; by the time radio stations were ready for a new song from Mercy Me, the new album was already on its way. Can Mercy Me live up to the hype of "I Can Only Imagine," or will they become a brief phenomenon known for one hit song? Time will tell, beginning with the band's anticipated follow-up, Spoken For.
A benchmark song like "I Can Only Imagine" is both a rarity and a blessing. Bob Carlisle has yet to match the success of "Butterfly Kisses," and as successful as Michael W. Smith has been over time, he always will be best known for "Friends." Any attempt to match the success of "I Can Only Imagine" will only sound forced, and all Mercy Me can do is continue to develop their songwriting craft. They done that much to terrific effect with Spoken For, and the press kit hits the nail on the head as to why I believe this is a much better disc overall than Almost There. The previous album was sort of an introduction for the band to a broader national audience, featuring a collection of songs drawn from Mercy Me's previous independent efforts. Although the songs were newly recorded for Almost There, it still was comprised of material written over a seven-year span. Naturally the songwriting varies greatly over that length of time. Spoken For, on the other hand, is a cohesive 11-track album of all new songs. It feels new and fresh with stronger songwriting than that found on Almost There. If you liked the previous album, I suspect you'll enjoy this one even more.
Even more impressive is the band's sound (it's amazing what strong album sales will do to your recording budget!). Not that Mercy Me sounds different or overproduced, but with the help of producer Pete Kipley, they suddenly sound like a solid roots rock band. I'd never noticed how much lead singer and songwriter Bart Millard sounds like Pat Monahan of Train, and the overall sound of the album could be compared to that band, as well as to Third Day and The Wallflowers. At the same time, Mercy Me retains the inspirational adult contemporary sound of Newsong and Steven Curtis Chapman. The upbeat pop/rock of songs such as "The Change Inside of Me" and "Your Glory Goes On" is widely accessible and pleasant to listen to. "Come One, Come All" sounds like a cross between Sonicflood ("Open the Eyes of My Heart") and John Mellencamp ("Paper in Fire"). "All the Above," co-written by Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline, may sound like an answer to a multiple-choice question, but it refers to the elation that rang through the heavens when we became children of God: "The moment you surrendered, the moment you were saved / Life as you knew it forever was changed / And all the above rejoiced."
Spoken For alternates between the up-tempo light pop/rock of the aforementioned songs and the beautiful ballads that make up the remainder of the album; there's no medium between the two styles. "Crazy" seems to be inspired by 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and the opening bars sound a little like a slower version of The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." Meanwhile, "The Love of God" is somewhat reminiscent of "Lamb of God" by Twila Paris. I particularly liked the brief "Word of God Speak," which simply reminds us that prayer and worship aren't about flowery orations: "I'm find myself at a loss for words / And the funny thing is it's ok / The last thing I need is to be heard / But to hear what you would say." This song is to prayer what "Heart of Worship" is to worship. It's too bad the album wasn't sequenced a little better. The worshipful title track and the 9/11-inspired "There's a Reason" are back to back, even though they have the same tempo and same key; it makes the album seem more repetitive than it really is.
Lead vocalist Bart Millard may be the heart of Mercy Me, but Spoken For feels like a team effort from all involved: Mike Scheuchzer (guitar), Robby Shaffer (drums), Nathan Cochran (bass), Jim Bryson (keyboards), and even producer Pete Kipley. For the sake of discriminating listeners, I'll stress that there's not much groundbreaking or original about Mercy Me's sound, but for inspirational pop/rock music, this is quite good. It also should be noted that the band intentionally broadened their definition of worship for this album. These aren't songs that will have the audience immediately singing "I will praise you" with the band; they're more thoughtful than that and the melodies aren't easy for everyone to sing to, but they're still catchy and vertically focused.
As for the question of whether or not there's another "I Can Only Imagine" among them, Mercy Me is destined for another big hit with the title track, which is already a beloved song in concert and the most added single on Christian radio stations in recent weeks. I don't think it'll have the same impact as their signature hit, but it's enough to firmly establish Mercy Me's popularity. There's a strong lyrical hook in the song's title — "Now I have a peace that I've never known before / I find myself complete, my heart is spoken for" — and I love how the album's cover photo drives the theme home (no pun intended). The image of an empty reserved parking spot in a garage is surprisingly effective as a reminder of how God has reserved a special place for us near him in heaven. A photo inside the CD booklet extends the metaphor by revealing several more empty parking spaces. Such words and imagery are indicative of Mercy Me's artistic growth on Spoken For, as well as their sincere desire to share God's love with everyone they come in contact with.