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Stories & Songs

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Oct
Stories & Songs
Sounds like … glossy Christian adult contemporary that most recalls Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis ChapmanAt a glance … there really isn't much storytelling to be found on Stories & Songs, but Mark Schultz's gifts as a pop songwriter and vocalist are still admirable

In just a few short years, pop singer/songwriter Mark Schultz has rapidly earned a reputation as a tunesmith and storyteller, writing music that truly reaches into the hearts of fans. Five No. 1 hits on Christian AC radio, nearly 500,000 units sold between his first two albums, and ten Dove nominations—five in 2001 alone. Clearly Schultz is doing something right, so why break formula?

On Stories & Songs, he generally doesn't, except for some songwriting subtleties. The first two albums were written from experience, largely inspired by his past work as a youth leader at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville. Schultz took the last year off from performing to reconnect with people around him, joining a small group in his congregation and nurturing a romance. In the process, he was profoundly influenced by two books: Don Hudson's The Silence of Adam and John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, both of which played an important role in developing a theme for this album.

That theme is best summed up in "Time That Is Left," a self-explanatory ballad: "What will you do with the time that's left?/Will you live it all with no regret?/Will they say that you loved 'til the final breath?" It's reminiscent of Chris Rice with its simple phrasing and ethereal chorus of hallelujahs. "Do You Even Know Me Anymore?" is a drippy but affecting ballad about a man who almost throws away his family in favor of his career: "I watched my days turn into years/And now I'm wondering how I wound up here/I dreamed my dreams, I made my plans/But all I've built here is an empty man."

The song that's bound to be the most memorable is "Running to Catch Myself," a humorously bombastic and elaborately manic track about the corporate rat race. Lyrically, it draws inspiration from comedic films like Office Space and City Slickers. Musically, it's a catchy oddball mix of Queen and Weird Al Yankovic, incorporating '80s rock with hints of modern punk and vocal tracks stacked into the stratosphere. Schultz clearly had a blast recording this one, and trying to explain it further wouldn't do the sound or humor justice. It'll be interesting and fun to see how he's going to perform this one live, and perform it he will for the rest of his life.

The press materials make much of Schultz's gifts as a master storyteller, but despite his reputation from past songs, I wonder if the people behind this album aren't too broadly defining "story song." Two of the aforementioned tracks certainly qualify, as does "Letters from War," a sweeping and grandiose power ballad inspired by letters between Schultz's great-grandmother and her son during World War II that interestingly (and unintentionally) parallel Christ's sacrifice. But beyond the three, the tracks on Stories & Songs don't tell tales. They're inspired by personal stories, which is something altogether different … and not uncommon.

One example is the poignant "Closer to You," a beautiful deathbed portrait of faith, inspired by the passing of close friends in recent years. It's a terrific, hope-filled pop ballad, but there's nothing in it especially unique to a dying person; it could just as well be any of us longing for heaven. The encouraging and energetic first radio single, "You Are a Child of Mine," a simple reminder that we are loved by God, strongly resembles many Schultz past songs with its soaring chorus. "He Will Carry Me" is a comforting song about the Lord's strength and love, while the Beatle-esque ballad "It's Been a Long Time" contrasts self-approval with serving God and others.

Stories & Songs teams Schultz with producer Brown Bannister (Steven Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant), though beyond the more sweeping string arrangements, the sound is generally the same. It might be said that Schultz's songs are too similar to those of other artists, namely Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman. His beautiful piano interlude, "Lullabye," is especially too reminiscent of Billy Joel's 1993 composition of the same title.

Contrary to word-of-mouth about the album, I'm not ready to call this Schultz's career-defining masterpiece. It's undoubtedly better than 2001's hastily crafted Song Cinema, but while the production level is superior to his debut, the songs on that album still seem stronger. Despite his reputation as a great storyteller, Schultz has featured increasingly fewer "story songs" with each album. But admittedly, the songs remain a guilty pleasure. There are many schmaltzy and heartfelt AC radio hits to be mined from Stories & Songs, an album demonstrating Schultz's greatest strengths—strong vocals, encouraging lyrics, and development of melodies, but not necessarily his ability to set a thoughtfully crafted story to music.