In a market as overly saturated as worship, how does an artist stand out from the crowd? What can an artist say that hasn’t already been said? Although the classic lament that there is nothing new under the sun stands true today, an artist can still shine by applying their own special something to a style of music that few, if anyone, can replicate.
Worship veteran Phil Wickham understood this more than anyone. His stunning falsetto made him instantly recognizable and his music was similarly beautiful. Songs such as You’re Beautiful, Cielo, and Mercy established Wickham as one of the best songwriters in the genre and, in this reviewer’s opinion, Cannons remains one of the most splendid worship records of the 2000s.
In 2013, a song by the name of This is Amazing Grace was released and it quickly became one of the biggest hits of the past five years. It blended Wickham’s signature quality songwriting with a flourish of EDM that worked incredibly well.
It was the perfect example of an artist catching lightning in a bottle because it came out right around the time EDM in worship was starting to gain traction. Yet, as the popular phrase implies, the chances of ever catching that bolt of lightning again are practically nil.
Children of God proved so by trying so hard to recreate This is Amazing Grace that most of the songwriting came across as forced and uninspired. Would Wickham come back and craft something as lovely as his past projects?
Enter Living Hope, Wickham’s seventh full-length studio project and the first to be co-written with a host of other popular names, including Bethel’s Brian Johnson (Living Hope) and Passion’s Kristian Stanfill (How Great Is Your Love).
Living Hope is Wickham’s most congregationally friendly release to date and although this means that it is easy to sing along with, it’s also, sadly, filled with recycled melodies and lyrics. Musically, Living Hope continues to follow the trend of anthemic, EDM laced music that in turn continues to be a forgettable product of its time.
The songwriting and production sound so disappointingly artificial that the record simply does not come across as anything more than an impersonal product for the masses. Although bright moments surface on occasion, such as the lush pop number Till I Found You and the beautifully stripped back Tethered, the body of songs they are a part of is so tediously homogeneous that it’s challenging to draw out specifics.
Watch Till I Found You here:
To the delight of worship leaders, however, and those interested in worship, this new album is packed with church songs. Anyone who has led worship before knows that there may be songs which may be theological erudite or musically ingenious, yet they fall flat before a congregation. Why? It takes more than a good song to gain commerce with a congregation.
Good worship songs, for instance, cannot be too complex in its melodic structures, yet they need to have a hook so obvious that even the most tune-deaf person can pick up in a couple of cycles. The expectation of the lyrical content is even loftier.
Worship songs, in general, can’t be too individualistic; they also need to be Biblical and theologically orthodox, and they need to give expressions to the cries of the congregation. Phil Wickham understands all of this. This is why Wickham’s songs such as This is Amazing Grace, My All in All, Doxology (Amen) and many others have been in constant rotation on worship sets across churches.
Months before this album was released, the vanguard single and title track Living Hope has had already invited many covers, most notably by Bethel’s Bethany Wohrle, Shane and Shane, and New Wine Worship. Living Hope not only narrates the Gospel systematically, from our lostness to how the death and resurrection renovate our lives, but it has a melody that is simple enough for a congregation with an array of musical backgrounds to latch on immediately.
Watch Living Hope here:
Wickham uses the same template, albeit with lesser impact, on How Great is Your Love. Similar to Hope, How Great is Your Hope starts with the softer piano pedals before ascending to those great and grandiose heights of anthem declarations. The same can be said of Boundless, Anthem and Tethered.”
Packed with a roaring worshipful explosion is the power-fest Wild River. Audacious, and prophetic, God’s mercy is majestically depicted as a wild river. This song is a wonderful reminder that metaphors still flourish in worship music.
Song in My Soul deviates a tad from the Wickham big balladry template with the incorporation of syncopated pop beats and a slight hint of Motown R&B groove. Meanwhile, when Wickham steps into EDM terrain disappointment sets in. The swirling Great Things and then highly individualistic Till I Found You retards Wickham back to Y&F territory where juvenile lyrics thrive.
Living Hope, on the whole, is packed with church songs made for us to sing with our brothers and sisters in worship. Despite some spots of sloppiness, this is a treasure trove for worship leaders and worshippers to mine as we search for ways to express our worship in ways that are Biblically sound and musically accommodating.
Listen to Wild River here: