So this release was 15 years in the making? Even without the book and film that are a part of this whole project, this one would have still been worth the wait.This is the ex-Delirious? guitarist’s best release since… probably Mezzamorphis.
Musical collaborations that draw in various artists seem rarer at the moment, but this one certainly sells the value of getting good musicians together to make a statement. There can’t be a much better statement than highlighting Jesus’ culture-shaping words in the Sermon on the Mount – hence the title of the accompanying book: Words from the Hill.
As the key intro track puts them:
“If you’re a giver, not a taker,
Walk the Earth as a peacemaker…
You forgive when you are hurt,
Share your food and give your shirt…
If you keep your heart pure,
Even when you’re unsure, Oh Blessed! Oh Blessed!
The words from the hill, they’re speaking still.”
Stu Garrard has drawn on old friends Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, current integrity-led artists The Brilliance and All Sons and Daughters, together with striking newcomers like American Idol singer Terrian Bass.
The standard is remarkably high throughout – much better than the CompassionArt project, for example – and includes many memorable tracks. “Heaven is All Around Us” features John Mark McMillan’s gravel-and-smoky vocals and then leads into an extended instrumental coda, just as several of Garrard’s old tracks used to. Musically, this would fit straight onto Glo.
The delicately poignant “I Will Be your Home” with Audrey Assad also lasts for eight minutes, and is enhanced by the tabla and oud of Hassan Al Zoubi, a Syrian refugee (as was Assad’s mother).
By contrast, Terrian Bass’s gorgeous, transfixing, pared back “Let my Dreams Fly” is better for its simplicity, with a brief trumpet solo adding to the soulful, jazzy timbres in her voice.
The music is consistently unhurried, thoughtful and reflective (Bethel’s Amanda Cook shares the spotlight with a harpist). It doesn’t even speed up much when rock puts in a proper appearance thirteen tracks in, as Garrard plays the fine solo song “Meet Me in the Middle.”
Propaganda speaks his verses against a skipping hip-hop beat, and Becky Harding offers a spoken word piece full of poetic wisdom, of which fragments appear across the disc:
(For) “the people around us we completely ignore,
Those we label as poor or people who just can’t do this anymore,
Or those whom society has decided are just not worth fighting for –
We are called to do more,
To no longer be silent or hidden;
This is an invitation to the Beatitude vision,
To understand the message more accurately than sniper precision…
Standing up for the ones who are not the majority,
Offering faith, hope and love to the rest of humanity,
Refuting the idea that it’s all about prosperity,
Because if we believe that the end goal is success,
Then we haven’t grasped the message that we are blessed.”
Many of the songs – like Jesus’ words – are directed at those who need to hear comfort and reassurance, but others provoke Christians to be “Holy Troublemakers” as Garrard’s old bandmate Martin Smith’s song puts it.
There’s not really a bad track on this set – when The Brilliance are pushed onto a bonus disc, the musicianship has to be high. Pushing 80 minutes, this release has quantity to match its assured quality. After the industry-generic material he has put out with One Sonic Society, it’s great to see Garrard again showing what Christian music can and should be like.
With spiritually rich content, excellent performances, superb production that offers a broad appeal without succumbing to blandness, and with several stop-and-soak-it-in spells, this one’s definitely recommended.
It’s another on my still-short shortlist for best of 2017.