The record is a powerfully personal conversation with Christ, with songs that speak into uncertainty, peace, and obedience. The debut single "Gloria" was written shortly after Christian's post-Anberlin jobs fell through, and the lyrics, "Tell me / Who else would we call on in times of trouble? / Who else could we give our adoration?" frequented his mind as he reminded himself God was in control. "I kept waking up in the middle of the night with aching, clenched fists," remembers Christian. "The stress of of providing for my family was taking an emotional and physical toll on me. I had a moment where I felt God ask, 'Does your daughter worry about her food, or her clothing, or the roof over her head?' In this song, I'm looking to Jesus and not the waves crashing around me."
God would end up not only quelling those raging seas, but drying them up all together. "Calvary Chapel called and asked me to lead worship at their church in Albuquerque. The desert! I immediately said no. I'd always told people--including myself--that I'm an entertainer, not a pastor. You know how that works though, I didn't want to do it and now we live in New Mexico and I've been on staff for about two years," laughs Christian.
The song "All I Need To Know" with lyrics, "I look to you alone / Even though I'm scared / You are always there / That's all I need to know," project the posture he had as he and his wife decided to move their family from Tennessee to New Mexico.
He named the album Wildfires with hope--hope that the songs will help ignite people to come to Christ and pursue God's gift of salvation. "I hope this record blesses people and helps bring them closer to Christ like each song did for me. God's been orchestrating my whole life so I could get here and rise up the next generation." What a perfect plan.
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Let's get this out of the way: Anberlin was easily one of my favorite bands. I can listen to their entire catalogue start to finish and not skip a single song. And while every band member contributed to that signature sound, a lot of it was supported by the instantly recognizable vocals of Stephen Christian.
Shortly after Anberlin's departure, word broke that Stephen Christian was working on a worship project. In 2015 Christian took a job as a worship leader, and there was a lot of speculation as to how his musical past would meld with this new influence. Now his solo debut Wildfires is finally in our hands, and we can see what a worship record looks like coming from an artist whose catalogue is filled with spiritually cryptic songs about love and darkness. The answer? It's surprisingly accessible.
Those hoping for a unique genre-bending stab at worship should know that these songs play it fairly safe. Most tracks could contend for radio play, electing to trend towards the currently popular electronic sounds over more organic instrumentation. I always had a theory that, as the saying goes, Stephen Christian could literally sing the phone book and make it sound compelling. This album largely reinforces that feeling for me.
When I hear the rousing chorus of lead single "Gloria," or immerse myself in the splendidly singable "Lights Rise Up," I cannot help but be transported into a worshipful setting. Perhaps in the hands of a more generic singer, these songs would fall flatter. But Christian elevates them to a stratospheric status that I cannot resist. It's radio worship as it should be.
There are still flashes of the artful rendering that Anberlin brought forth. "Wide Eyed Wonder" echoes Christian's standard lyrical meat, and "One More Moment" serves as a slow-building treat that offers depth to the topic of praising our Savior.
A handful of moments do feel short of their potential. "Atmosphere" is beautiful and features strong guest vocals from Sarah Reeves, but ultimately fails to connect like some of the other cuts do. I also find the track order may not create the best flow. I would probably flip the last two tracks to create a stronger finish. Still, these are minor caveats to an otherwise engaging performance.
I think most will agree that this album doesn't topple the artistic highs of Anberlin's discography. Still, it's consistently very good and offers some of the more memorable and exciting worship songs of the past few years. It also gives a chance to hear one of the industry's best vocalists offer something new. Stephen Christian has hinted that this isn't the last record he intends to make, and I truly hope that is the case. When so many Christian artists are trading in their Christian audience for a more generic mainstream approach, it's encouraging to see an artist I already loved and respected going the other route.
The Bottom Line: Wildfires is Stephen Christian singing worship songs that are a step above the industry standard. It's not revolutionary, but it's honest, and it's a great soundtrack for contemplating God's character this summer.
Song to Download Now:
"Gloria" (Get it on iTunes here.)