Friday, July 29, 2011

Revisiting Michael W. Smith: An Album Review

Recently my brother Dave graciously sent me a couple of (completely legally) burnt CD's in the mail. One of them was Michael W. Smith's 2010 album "Wonder."

Me and "Smitty" go back, geez, as far as I can remember. I enjoyed his early material in the mid-80's, just after he went solo after being Amy Grant's keyboardist. There were songs like "You Need A Savior" and "The Race Is On." In the late 80's he had the hit "Secret Ambition," and there was the immensely overplayed but popular song "Friends."

And then Michael caused a stir when he attempted to "cross-over" into the non-Christian music market in the 90's, first with the song "Place In This World" and then with the entire album "Change Your World." He even received Best New Artist at the American Music Awards, which was kind of funny considering he had been around the Christian music scene for years.

His foray into the mainstream market wasn't permanent. He went on to record excellent albums such as "Live The Life" and "I'll Lead You Home." Then Michael entered the worship music market, having a lot of success with his two worship-centered albums.

I'm glad though that Michael has went on to record "regular" albums, and "Wonder"(2010) is the 53-year-old's latest (though by the album cover you'd swear he's 40). Here is my review after the first listen through.

1) The album opens with "Save Me From Myself" - Great sound to it, a rockiness to it that's good to hear. By the title I was thinking it might be a "I'm so terrible and sinful, please make me better" kind of song, but Smith doesn't seem to go there, rather he seems to be saying "I need help with my life and get caught up in the negative, so I'm relying on God to help me out."

2) The rockiness continues with 'Take My Breath Away", and it quickly becomes clear that this is no cross-over album. Smith talks about the beauty of the universe, God's creation, and invokes the Scripture which says "Who am I that you are mindful of me?" Or as I like to paraphrase "I don't deserve your love, thanks for having mercy on me," an idea I have major problems with. The song continues with Smith singing about the sacrifice of Jesus' life for humanity's sins.

3) Things slow down on "Run To You," a beautiful song about giving up control to God, or as I prefer to say "letting go and letting God." "I've tried for so long, I've tried to make it on my own, Now dreams are scattered on the ground, And now I'm down on my knees." For quite a long time now, the thought of dropping to my knees has been kind of offensive, or at least uncomfortable, as it reminded me of when I was a teenager and would almost daily fall to my knees to beg forgiveness for being a sinner. Call it a decade-long guilt trip. But now I think there is a place for it again, where we can symbolically say "Look God (Spirit/Universe/whatever you may call God), I don't know what to do with this situation, so I release it to you because I believe that you are working all things together for my good.

4) "I'll Wait For You" is one of those forgettable songs that almost every album you purchase has. 'Nuff said.

5) "Forever Yours" is a ballad presumably written for his wife (either that or he's got some 'splainin to do. Again, I tend to put this on the forgettable pile, and it doesn't compare well to earlier love songs he's written (i.e. I Will Be Here For You or In My Arms Again).

6) "Welcome Home" is a piano ballad about saying both goodbye to a loved one and then anticipating their welcome into Heaven. "I can hear the sound as angels gather 'round, saying this is where you belong." It's a simple beautiful song. What Heaven/the afterlife actually looks like is beyong me, but it's a beautiful song.

7) "Wonder (Not Far Away)" is basically a song that says that people can depend on God in any situation or any hardship, and God is, well, "not far away." Somewhere Bette Midler is singing "From A Distance" and going "WTF!"

8) "Rise" encourages people to leave their trouble behind and follow God by "walking across the sea and walking on the waves" like the disciple Peter. "Rise, he's calling you to come. Just leave it all behind and rise above." It sort of sounds like a modern-day altar call, like "Just As I Am" was for decades for Billy Graham. (As an aside, Michael sports a raspyness to his voice on this one and a couple other songs, and I can't decide if I like it or if it's annoying).

9) "You Belong To Me" is, guess what...another love song to his wife. Check out this lyric: "So walk with me awhile, And we will spend our lives, Learning the mysteries of love." For the record, I used that line on a girl back in college and got kicked in the shins.

10) With "Leave" we truly have something different. Skipping well-worn lines about life with God or how much he loves his snuggly Mrs, Michael tackles the issue of child abuse, singing from the perspective of someone with an alchoholic father who physically abuses him. There are no platitudes or easy answers here, just crying out to God asking if He's actually there. Excellent song by Michael, definitely one of the highlights of the whole album.

11) "One More Time" is a pretty-sounding song encouraging people to press on towards their goals and dreams. "This is what you're made for, standing in the downpour, knowing that the sun will shine. Forget what lies behind you, heaven walks beside you, you've got to give it one more try."

12) The album ends with "Take Me Over" and I knew that I'd have issues with the song just by reading the title. But first the good. There is a real romantic notion in this song, and in a lot of evangelicalism in general, that still holds some pull for me. There's this lyric "Just to rest in Your arms, Close enough to hear your heart," or "With just a glimpse of Your face, all my fears melt away." These lyrics could easily be written for a lover. But the song continues "Jesus, Jesus, take me over now. I surrender. Everything I have I lay it down, all of me." This line is repeated over and over and sounds quite beautiful to end off the album, though I don't connect with it at all - a decade ago I would have. Maybe I'm missing the point here, but I think lyrics like this speak to the evangelical view that "Mankind is sinful and weak and therefore we need to surrender our sinful lives and ask God to take over." The line "Jesus, Jesus take me over now" sung repeatedly may be comforting to some - I grant that. But to me it also wreaks of zombie-like spiritual possession (I know that sounds harsh, but hey, it's what comes to mind). I'm happy to have God as part of my life, but that doesn't require me to beat myself down, think of myself as hopeless and give away my power.

In conclusion, I enjoyed listening to this album, and will add a few of the songs to my playlist. Michael is still putting out quality music after all these years, and it's also good to know that he can still rock it up a little bit from time to time. I give WONDER a score of 77%.