I spend plenty of time in this series lamenting the sorry state of Christian music, particularly worship music; and occasionally an interesting artist comes along to why I care about it so much. Generally speaking, worship bands fall into one of three categories. Most bands are in the “not very good, not commendable, maybe not even actually Christian, probably doing it for the money and fame” category. A few fall into the “my grandchildren will praise God with these songs” category. The Gettys, Shane and Shane. Those are the real treasures. Still, some fall into the category of “a promising talent who is a victim of the false church and Christian Music Industry™ culture”. Today’s artist is one of those.
Phil Wickham released his 6th studio album, “Children of God” in late April. Truthfully, since I avoid K-Love like bad milk on a hot day (they both have the same effect on me), I hadn’t heard much before from Phil Wickham aside from the one song we sing in church about twice a year, which I liked. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that the deeper you dig in Christian music, the worse it gets. Sadly, Phil Wickham is no different. It seems obvious to me that the man is much more interested in the music than in the God the music is supposed to adore. While I didn’t find a lot to object to lyrically in the album itself, I also didn’t find a lot to commend it. It’s almost as if the songs are written for the broadest audience possible. Of course that impression isn’t changed when you consider his association with Jezebel Meyers and the Osteen House of Heresy. Disastrous decisions like those make unexciting lyrics seem more like indifference to truth rather than graciousness to a broader audience.
Track by Track
1) Doxology//Amen – No better way to start an album than by playing a standard classic. Phil has a unique voice, but it sounds a little like there’s some auto-tune stuff going on. If you’re hoping for the big high church like pipe organ sound that usually accompanies this song, you’ll be sorely disappointed. A foundation of “pad” synthesizer with electric guitar and driving drums give this classic a thoroughly modern sound. It is still just as majestic and beautiful. The focus is certainly on the words, although Phil wrote in some of his own responses and additions. It is worshipful, Christ-centered, and an excellent start to a promising album.
2) Better Than Life – Energetic synthesizer with a highly refined “studio” sound accompanied by double time drums pick this song up from the beginning. The drums do vary by the end of the first verse, which was nice. The band seems to lead the music with synthesizer, which is disappointing but none the less unique. The lyrics are ok; not bad but not particularly good. A lot of it strikes me as filler particularly the “give it all, give it all” repeats in the chorus. The bridge does a good job of building musically, but Phil just repeats himself again and again. There’s missed potential there. It has the feeling of a good song they never quite finished.
3) Your Love Awakens Me – This has “K-LOVE Concert Hit” written all over it. Once again, a foundation of synth and drums gives an energetic backdrop to Phil’s singing. It was good to discover that the band has a bass guitarist in it, which seems to have some idea of what to do in this type of music. In fact, if you hone in on it past some of the overwhelming sound of the drums/synth, you find it’s actually a rather interesting bass line. Too little guitar and other organic sounds in this album so far and this song sounds like an extension of track 2. The lyrics are about the same too. If I’m being honest, this is the kind of music you find in churches that don’t take worship as anything more than an emotional experience for the attendee. Although it’s not, by any means, the worst I’ve heard.
4) The Secret Place – Madison Cunningham (whoever that is) makes an appearance here. She has a lovely voice and the band wisely breaks up the monotony of the last two songs with this slower and more vocal oriented track. Can’t say that the song is really organic, particularly the parts between the chorus and lyric, but it’s leaning that way. You can tell they wanted to feature the vocals and did a nice job of it. Musically, the song is catchy and enjoyable, easy to listen to. The lyrics are nice. Not spectacular, not horrible, not ok. Nice. I like them, I could sing them, they seem to be focused on Christ and what He can do, they adore and praise Him. I do wish we’d stop writing about “secret places” though. They just don’t send your mind to new heights of glory like some songs can do. Not everything can be a classic and this is nice for what it is. The song feels tight and flows well, lyrics and music complement each other nicely. Good tune.
5) Wide Awake – A piano! Lovely! Gotta hand it to the band, they are able to vary their sound nicely. An even tempo song that builds nicely and allows the listener to focus on the lyrics. The organic elements of the song eventually give way to a “big” highly refined sound, but an interplay develops between that and the piano/acoustic guitar until all come together for the chorus. It’s a nice way to build tension and draw attention to the main message. As for that message, I agree with that sentiment, but I am starting to get the idea that Phil and the band are just writing music and not necessarily worship music. I don’t really know what they want to do, so I’ll leave that alone. I will say that this song is about them. What they say about themselves is nice (they’re wide awake, captivated by God, want to be closer to Him, etc.) but it’s ultimately about them. If that’s what they want to say, that’s great! If that’s meant to be worshipful, I think they missed it.
6) My All in All – Again, a different sound, this time a bass foundation that builds in a pre-lyric overture and dominates the lyric parts. Drums are subdued and synth provides a foundation while the melody is carried by the singing. Excellent accent parts all around here, really drawing attention to the words. The words aren’t exactly man-centered, but they are man-related. Phil is singing about Jesus and saying good things, but he’s always saying them from the basis of his perspective. I think that’s fine, if done occasionally. The bridge abandons that basis and simply proclaims that Jesus’ name be lifted high. The bridge soars, frankly, and I had goosebumps. I really like this tune. I’d be excited to sing it with other believers once in a while. I appreciate the sentiment and the effort to exalt God.
7) Starmaker (High Above the Earth) – More Piano! Still lovely! Phil tries a falsetto opening which didn’t really work for me. This is a quiet, contemplative song with a piano foundation, and accents on guitar. The focus is the lyrics and melody. I love the lyrics. The holiness and majesty of God is front and center and it is the type of song that would work well in a corporate or individual environment. I can see myself humming it in a few weeks as I did other things. They do some things in the later lyrics with the harmonies that I think added much to the music, lots of auto-tune and alternate backing vocals. Phil’s voice is strong enough to stand alone. They should let it. The music doesn’t get in the way but does what it should: assist you in focusing on what is being said, it swells and ebbs appropriately and always seems to follow the lyrical melody. Great track really highlighting the potential of this group.
8) Children of God – Aaaaaaand we’re back to energetic synth/drum driven big sounds. There’s just something in this band that loves this stuff. This song sounds like it was written for a cheesy Christian movie. I could just see it being played in the preparation scene right before the climactic showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. Once new and cool thing was hints at a counterpoint part by the electric guitar. Also, Phil goes into some ill-advised falsetto stuff at the end. The lyrics are your standard K-Love “we’re special because of Jesus and we’re going to be tough” stuff.
9) Stand in Awe – I like the fact that this band allows each member to play their own parts and doesn’t force everyone to follow the same path. It’s highlighted in the opening moments here with Phil singing the melody and the piano playing a lead part, which seems to continue to some extent throughout. These guys are good at using silence and pauses to build tension, and they’re also pretty good at offering a variety from lyric to lyric while tying everything together in a chorus or bridge. I wish they were more creative with their lyrics. All of the work they do on the music side kind of gets wasted on repetitiveness on the lyric side. As for the lyrics, they’renot bad on this one. Neat little tune, but more interesting on the music side than lyrics.
10) Body Mind & Soul – The first song I didn’t like on this album. The melody doesn’t work well, and they use claps and 80’s sounding synth/guitar/melody harmonies to give the song structure. It doesn’t work. Add to it the couplet lyrics that are little more than tired simple rhymes, and repetitive to boot, and we have bad music. And can we get the message out that instrumental bridges that don’t go anywhere don’t help a song, nor does elongating the last vowel in your line while going falsetto? Please? The album would be better without this song.
11) As It Is In Heaven – Nice to let the bassist have a turn. It was also nice to see a guitar drive the lyric into a synth padded soaring pre-chorus. They weave different themes and elements into the music throughout the song, and if you pay attention to them you note that they make for decent composers as well as musicians. The build well out of the bridge as well as anyone I’ve heard. As for lyrics, they’re perfectly fine and center mostly on Christ, but they’re also boring. By and large, they aren’t saying anything someone else hasn’t already said but what they are saying is just fine.
12) Spirit of God – A contemplative piano riff opens the song which compliments Phil’s confident singing well. The chord structure for this song is interesting, and lends itself to a lot of properly built and relieved tension. This song is right in Phil’s wheelhouse for his vocal range. Singers are always best with that. The great tension building and resolution of the chord structure is accompanied well by the other instrumentation. I don’t like the lyrics. They have a charismatic flair asking the Spirit of God to fall and giving God permission to have His way. This isn’t Jesus Culture level bad, but it’s not good either. The repeated sentiment of “more of You and less of me” and wanting to bring God glory is nice. For the billionth time, they’d do better to develop their lyrics and not just repeat them. The closing bridge (and coda) with the competing guitar and synth building to a crescendo’ed chorus was well executed and almost majestic. Too much synth/guitar quiet fade out for my taste, just end the song.
You know, I really liked this album. The band certainly has talent and the lyrics had their high points. I’d be interested in seeing Phil develop and move forward with more music. While it’s not going to make any list of “classics” nor wow any aficionados, it was a solid album. I can’t give it Five stars because the lyrics just aren’t strong enough, but it’s a good effort through and through and I recommend it. I lament the associations with outright heretics, but I can’t deny the album, in and of itself, is a solid effort.