Christian music that sounds as good as the mainstream is everywhere today, but things were different in the early 80’s when The Michael W. Smith Project appeared, with its mix of prog-pop New Wave and singer/songwriter ballads. Over the next decade, Smith was one of the superstars of a music scene gathering in Nashville, practicing sonic excellence and paving the way for the youth group phenomenon that bands like dc Talk, Jars of Clay, and Newsboys rode to prominence in the mid 90s. “Smitty” settled into elder statesman status for the last 20 years, releasing worship albums, hymn collections, instrumentals, and a string of Christmas albums. Now he’s diving back into a much-changed world of modern pop with a team of new collaborators, helmed by producers Brian Todd and Kyle Lee.
Musically, it’s a thoroughly modern album, which means plenty of pop-drop moments and gang vocals. Elements from Coldplay to Maroon 5 to New Republic abound. None of the innovative musical progressions that marked Smith’s early career are here, but neither are we asked to suffer through a dozen tracks built on the “Don’t Stop Believing” chords. Apart from too-obvious homages to Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek and fun.’s Some Nights, it all sounds like a spacious album of modern pop anthems. If you want to listen to something that sounds like an older MWS album… well, I guess you’ll have to go listen to an older MWS album.
Lyrically, Smith and company keep things positive, as usual. Familiar co-writing friends like Cindy Morgan, Wes King, and Wayne Kirkpatrick keep Smith grounded in his previous body of work. “Conversation” is an electronica-infused plea for open communication in troubled times. “I’ve been losing myself, trying to prove you wrong.” 80’s CCM was also built on “God/girl” songs that could be interpreted in either a romantic or religious way, and MWS offers plenty of that here. Jesus is the “you” encoded, but never invoked by name throughout the album. For example: “You knew me better than I ever knew myself, and now the only thing that’s left is your love.” (from “Your Love,” an atypically confessional track) The funeral theme of “Crashing Waves” (Smith’s father died in 2015) is touching.
Smith has always excelled at piano ballads, and this album is no exception. The beautiful “Hey, Love” features an arresting duet with Jordin Sparks that’s not to be missed, and some nice David Foster-esque changes, without Foster’s bombast. Smith is known more as a tunesmith than a vocalist, but on “You Make Me Feel This Way,” he reveals a warm baritone range that had me scanning the liner notes in vain for a guest vocalist credit. “Who You Are” wraps it up with a very U2-ish slow build to chiming guitar and steady eighth note bass. Smith saves the best tracks for the end of the album rather than front-loading them, as is the usual custom, but for my money there’s not really a clunker track in the whole set.