An Open Letter to UNITED
Posted May 26, 2015
Dearest Hillsong UNITED,
I thought I'd write this review of your latest album, Empires, as a letter, seeing as I feel like I know you personally. I'm not talking about having met Joel, Taya and J.D. over the years, but the fact that the entity that is UNITED and I go way back.
I remember hearing King of Majesty and Best Friend in my college dorm room and being completely blown away that worship music could sound exciting and fun and make you want to turn it up and pogo up and down like all the Aussie kids I saw in their videos. Together, More than Life and United We Stand provided some big moments for our youth when I was leading high school worship. All the Above was a watershed moment for us, and for the Church with Brooke Fraser's incredible songs "Lead Me to the Cross" and "Hosanna"--and I still crank "Solution" as a call-to-action motivator. Across the the Earth: Tear Down the Walls was therapeutic, as was the artistically progressive Aftermath.
With each album, UNITED, you grew and matured as a band/worship team/whatever you guys are, and with each album came this adoption period for me where I had to get used to whatever new schemes you'd cooked up and then I'd be all-in. I just had to see where you were going, and by extension, where the Church was going. I saw it in the early years with the rock sounds, in the middle with the social justice anthems, and more recently with the more introspective music.
And then, with Zion, came the shift to a more indie-electronic sound, which made the adoption period a bit longer, I must admit. But I, like everyone else, loved "Oceans" as well as "Scandal of Grace" and "Relentless." Seeing the Welcome Zion Tour definitely breathed additional life into these songs for me, too.
Now we find ourselves at a crossroads, don't we, UNITED? Where do we go from here? Well, upon listening to Empires, I can say this: You're sticking with the indie-electronic thing, mostly. In some places, you've taken a step back towards some more traditional-sounding instruments. I do love hearing real pianos and strumming guitars.
Having really enjoyed the Zion Acoustic album, it was great to hear some no-kidding acoustic guitars strumming on "Prince of Peace" and "When I Lost My Heart to You (Hallelujah)"--two songs that feature your unofficial frontman, Joel Houston, who showed on the three songs he sings that he's evolved into more of a whisper-singing style.
Lyrically, you're probably at your best--ever. Check out this beautiful line from "Here Now (Madness)," the opener: "Faith makes a fool of what makes sense / But grace found my heart where logic ends." I love how "Heart Like Heaven" makes this declaration: "And I'll throw my weakness into Your greatness / If this broken heart is all You want." And there are deep phrases galore that pop up, like "wrapped up in scarlet kindness," as we see in "Street Called Mercy."
Really, you're at the top of your game here. And yes, I know some people might not like the fact that you say, "Even when it hurts like hell, I'll praise You" on "Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)," but I think the world is tough enough out there that people will realize it's not just a ploy to be edgy, but a real commitment made through gritted teeth.
So lyrics aside, I'm struggling. And if the pattern holds from other releases, I may very well be in the longest adoption period yet of our relationship, UNITED. But still, I'm trying to come to terms with the duality of what's happening here. On the one hand, you're making art. Contemplative, meditative art even. You set out to make the most honest art of your tenure. But does that mean your mission has changed a little bit? Because while you've made a definite work of art, on the other hand, as a worship leader, I'm struggling to find a lot that the everychurch can sing along to, much less replicate.
There's an interesting pattern on a number of the songs here. They begin with verses and a chorus that's super ethereal sounding and meditative, and frankly, not super congregational. But then they eventually burst into a huge, focused, glorious bridge or second chorus that is beautiful and quite congregational. So I'm left feeling like I went to the dance with a date who didn't pay any attention to me until the last song, when it turned out she was a really nice girl after all. "Street Called Mercy", "Closer Than You Know" and "When I Lost My Heart to You (Hallelujah)" all fit the bill there.
That's not to say there aren't some standalone gems of congregational potential. If churches can get past the whole "hurts like hell" thing, "Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)" is a powerful declaration that hits a great balance between the synthetic and analog instruments. It's my favorite song on the album, to be sure. (Download it now on iTunes here.)
Title track "Empires" is triumphant: "The wait is over / The King is here / His name is Jesus." It takes a little imagination to translate this Jad Gillies-led song to the regular church worship setting, but it's doable. And it's tremendously worshipful. Another Gillies-led tune, "Heart Like Heaven," has the big feeling of commitment and surrender that is so key at times in the church. It's worshipful and puts the focus on the heart that's big enough to heal ours. It's a song that certainly gives a nod to the golden age of Marty Sampson balladry.
I have to say, I was so excited to hear "Rule," which I believe was led by Matt Crocker--one of your longtime leaders. I loved it because it hearkened back to the old days when high school and college kids were bouncing at Hills Campus like kangaroos to "One Way Jesus" and "Break Free." That song has great remix potential, too.
It's really wonderful that you've finally found your rock-solid mainstay female vocalist in Taya Smith, as it's a role that's been missing since Brooke Fraser stepped aside to continue that exceptional solo career of hers. Taya of course will now be known as the voice of "Oceans" forever, but I know that's just the beginning, as this album shows. She's featured on a third of the songs, and they're all really strong. From the already chart-topping lead single "Touch the Sky" to the aforementioned "Even When It Hurts" to the overt and faithful "Say the Word," Taya either was handed the most congregational songs, or she has a knack for congealing the ethereal.
I will say, Taya's song "Captain" seems like a thematic sequel to "Oceans." Not that it's a bad thing. Check out these lyrics: "Through waters uncharted my soul will embark / I'll follow Your voice straight into the dark / And if from the course You intend I / Speak to the sails of my wandering heart."
Coming to the end of Empires, I definitely felt awkward. I didn't doubt the art or the hearts of the artists making it. I didn't dislike what I heard stylistically or lyrically. I felt as if you're going through the same kind of early-adulthood questions and searching and transition as your main audience of people in their late 20s and early 30s. Things change. Our roles change. Our callings don't, but the manifestations of said callings must.
Your little brother, Hillsong Young & Free, is getting the kids to pogo like you used to. And your mama, Hillsong LIVE, is of course going to focus on the congregational, more singable fare. So where does that leave you, UNITED? I guess we're finding that out together. I think that role exists somewhere in creating contemplative art that points us to Jesus. That's not terribly different from writing compelling worship music, but it is a little different.
I--like countless others who will buy this record--am with you. We're already invested. We may not 100 percent understand what you're doing or why you're doing it, but we're in. We realize that over the years you've tapped into something important regarding the heart of God for our generation in this time, and it's up to us to figure out what about these sounds, about these moods and lyrics and choruses, that speaks to a focus we all need to have.
Will I at times miss the days of the uptempo rock songs and the mega-hit Sunday morning staples? Absolutely. But there's something curiously compelling about you, UNITED, in that you don't exist to make radio hits or even church hits, but exactly what you believe God wants you to make. And that being the case, mission accomplished.
-Your friend, Marcus
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