In the mid-2000’s Aussie worship band, Hillsong, helped change the fabric of the modern worship genre almost single-handedly with their ethereal keyboard pads, haunting guitar licks, and repetitive choruses. Their songs and arrangements are sung in churches around the world and their sound has been copied by just about everyone. While it’s currently fashionable for Christian artists to offer a remix or acoustic rendition of their hit album a year or so after the album’s initial release, Hillsong UNITED has bucked the trend by giving us something completely revolutionary with their re-release of last year’s Empires album, now entitled, Of Dirt and Grace. The album contains the same twelve original tracks, but with completely reworked arrangements and instrumentation as well as a few numbers from previous releases that also get a makeover. This album is touted as a visual album where the musical shaping of the songs are nuanced by the band’s actual performing of these selections live in various locations of Israel.
The biggest difference between the albums, and one that UNITED says is very on purpose is the musical landscaping of the songs. Most of the original tracks on Empires had that classic Hillsong sound with plenty of driving rhythms, keyboards, and electronic foundations that we have come to know and expect. Here, these songs have been re-interpreted and are much more stripped down offering a new exposition of song themes and ideas that actually works very well.
“Streets Called Mercy” which was filmed on the Via Dolorosa has greater depth and meaning to it than it’s predecessor, while “Here Now (Madness)” which used to have an EDM streak is re-interpreted as a folksy soft rock piece.
With most of the tracks getting a melodramatic makeover, “Touch the Sky” retains the propulsive drive and the congregational focus of the original even without their rhythm section. “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song),” which is the album’s nerve center, is filmed on a dark and cold street bringing out vividly the song’s message of how God is still sovereign in our pain.
The other interesting difference is that more than half of the album is fronted by worship leader Tanya Smith, whose silky vocals are an absolutely perfect fit for the raw, organic nature of this collection.
Normally, this reviewer doesn’t care much for album re-do’s, but it is obvious that Hillsong UNITED put a lot of time, creativity, and effort into this project and they should be commended for taking such huge risks to bring new meaning and new insight into their ministry and music. They knocked the ball outta the park with this one.