Friday, December 5, 2014

Album Review: Michael W. Smith & Friends - The Spirit Of Christmas

When I received Michael W. Smith's latest Christmas album in the mail yesterday, it was the first album of his that I had actually bought in at least 15 years. As a Christian teenager, I grew up listening to his contemporary gospel music. After being the keyboardist to Amy Grant, he launched out on his own solo career, with contemporary Christian music hits such as Great Is The Lord, Old Enough To Know, Secret Ambition, and Friends. In the 90's, Smith caused a significant tremor in some Christian circles when he, like Grant had done earlier, "crossed over" to the mainstream market and put out an album called Change Your World, which featured less overtly gospel lyrics. This came on the heels of his major claim to mainstream success, the hit Place In This World, from the album Go West Young Man. It was quite the achievement, though rather amusing spectacle, when Smith won Favorite New Adult Contemporary Artist in 1992 at the American Music Awards for his crossover work, though he had been an accomplished artist for many, many years.

Smith, now 57, quickly moved back to the contemporary Christian music scene, and most recently has had success with his albums of worship songs and hymns.

However, Michael makes a big splash back into the mainstream market - while retaining his Christian fan base - with the release of The Spirit Of Christmas, his fourth, and by far best holiday album to date. An accomplished singer-songwriter who has been around Nashville and other circles for decades, Smith clearly has forged friendships and gained the admiration of some of the heavy hitters of country music. The Spirit Of Christmas features duets with stars including Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles. Amy Grant, Audrey Smith, and Michael McDonald also appear on the 14-track album.

Smith's voice is in fine form here, and as a producer and executive producer, he manages the perfect balance  between the secular and the sacred.

The highlights here include All Is Well, a song which appeared on his first Christmas offering, so long ago that his duet superstar Carrie Underwood may not even have been born at the time of its release. Another standout is Almost There, a duet with his long-time friend, the aforementioned Amy Grant. The title track is a fantastic, sweeping instrumental medley of three songs, performed by Smith and the London Session Orchestra as directed by David Hamilton. The orchestra also excels on numerous other tracks.

There are only two minor missteps on the album, the first being Somewhere In My Memory. I understand that Christmas is a particularly magical time for children, but this does not mean that is always a good idea to feature children singing on one's Christmas album. While Audrey Smith and the Nashville Children's Choir do a fine job on this track, it takes the cake for the schmaltz component. (Note: It only just now occurred to me that Miss Smith is almost certainly a grand-daughter of Michael's; now I feel bad, but it doesn't necessarily change my mind. Then again, I don't have children.) The only other unfortunate addition to the album is thankfully a short one. Bono is featured in a minute-and-a-half spoken word piece called The Darkest Midnight. It contains the unfortunate stanza: "We'll sing and pray that God, as always, may our friends and family defend. God grant us grace in all our days, Merry Christmas and a happy end." One isn't clear if the U2 frontman, or Smith for that matter, is calling out to God to "defend" everyone, or only Christians.

The album ends with a splendid cover of Peace, a song penned by brilliant Nashville singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Michael McDonald, who joins Smith in this rendition. They do a fine job, though if you want to hear the song in all its glory, I highly recommend running to Amazon and buying Chapman's album Back To Love.

Overall, The Spirit Of Christmas is a masterpiece by Michael W. Smith. I highly recommend ordering it online, downloading it from iTunes, or picking it up at a mainstream music shop or Christian bookstore. The perfect album for the season.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Mark Andrew Nouwen