To anyone who has followed CCM for a while, it's no secret that worship leader Chris Tomlin is a staple of the genre. He's one of the core artists of Louie Giglio's Passion conferences and the writer of numerous well-known praise anthems, and his songs hold a major influence in both radio singles and Sunday morning set lists. Earlier this year, he debuted some new music on the Passion: Awakening live album, including the radio hit "Our God," the source of the title for his sixth studio album And if Our God is for Us... For better or worse, these new songs are just what listeners familiar with his style would expect: a set of emotional, mid-tempo ballads, with a few upbeat tracks mixed in.
It's a challenge to translate the emotion and experience of corporate worship music into a studio album, as shown in the opener, "Our God." This familiar radio single is a thundering anthem that's powerful in its live form, and the new studio version doesn't deviate from the original too much, except for a more produced sound and the addition of some heavy strings. But somehow, between the stage and the studio, some of the original electricity is lost. Still, the rallying cry of "And if our God is for us / Then what could ever stop us?" makes a strong statement to set up the rest of the album.
Most of the songs fit Tomlin's established praise ballad formula, but there are a couple of tracks that experiment with a pop-oriented sound, and one in particular that stands out from the rest. "I Will Follow" is a surprising tune with its strong piano-based rhythm and catchy chorus. Lyrically, it's still vertical, but feels more like a personal statement than a congregational song ("Who you love, I'll love / How you serve, I'll serve / If this life I lose / I will follow you..."). Sure, it's not exactly groundbreaking, but as a well-produced pop song it really shines. "Majesty of Heaven" also stands out with a nicely layered, thick sound and is the first track to feature the lovely voice of Christy Nockels singing backup harmony. At the midpoint comes "No Chains on Me," a fun, upbeat tune (probably the most energetic on the record). Unfortunately, its electronic beat, while definitely an experiment in style, doesn't really fit so well, and it comes off a bit forced and strange after a few listens.
For the second half, the record settles back into Tomlin's signature style of emotionally-charged balladry. "Faithful," a duet with Christy Nockels, is a highlight that showcases her skills as a vocalist, and the final track "Awakening" (also previously found on Passion: Awakening) serves as a beautiful, somber finish. But other than that, the final six tracks blend together so much that they start to sound alike and drag the album out. While they may connect in a live setting, it's hard to engage these songs on a personal level in a studio recording. Perhaps it's the nature of this genre of songs written for the church, designed to bring a group of people together in worship. Standing alone on a disc, canned in a studio, what could be powerful and emotional feels like the same arrangements and spiritual, yet distant lyrics that deliver the same messages without reflecting the author's personality or depth.
And if Our God is for Us... is not a bad album by any means. There's something admirable about Chris Tomlin's ability to pen so many new songs to move congregations, and no doubt more than a few of these will find themselves rising to the ceilings of mega-churches before long. But with recent albums from artists like Gungor and John Mark McMillan redefining what worship could be and raising the standards for musical artistry and lyrical depth, And if Our God is for Us... pales in comparison. It's tough to change what works, but it might benefit Tomlin to stretch a bit creatively, perhaps even step out of the worship leader role to try some new things. For now, casual listeners may want to pick up the singles from this record, but check out some of this year's other offerings for something more innovative.
- Review date: 11/14/10, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com