Paul writes in Philippians 3:13b-14 (NIV): "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Life isn't all roses, but the eternal goal is what matters most, and this theme is the inspiration for JJ Heller's ninth project, Loved, a foray into the tough times and the promise that keeps everything together. With Cason Cooley and Ben Shive back on as producers, Heller keeps the precedent in check throughout, giving a fresh look to her musical abilities to old and new listeners.
Unlike Heller's recent projects What Love Really Means and Deeper, Loved carries a contemporary pop sound that's less acoustic and more atmospheric. While, at first, this description could sound terribly bleak (and indeed, it's an unsettlingly "safe" sound on first glance), Heller actually develops this sound much better than most adult contemporary acts, even channeling the same vibe as Dido or Sarah McLachlan. It's sweet, serene, and never takes up more room than it is granted. It's a haunting fit with Heller's vocal style, too, full of subtle moments of both energy and grace. On the topic of Loved's album concept, Heller said, "Making a record that sounds different from what we've done in the past is a very risky thing. But if we stop growing and changing as artists, then something has gone wrong. Our challenge for Loved was to create something beautiful and new, but still maintain the same elements of honesty and transparency that established connections between us and our audience in our earlier projects." This entire quotation accurately reflects how Loved relates to Heller's previous projects: it's fresh, exciting, and most importantly, risky, and that only adds to the overall appeal of Loved.
Many artists falter in their lyrical approaches by drawing out their themes in vague terms and descriptions, but Heller continually aims on the specific side. "For You," as an example, uses detailed imagery to paint a picture of rising to the occasion when coming to worship ("If I can talk, then I will sing for you/if I can walk, then I will dance for you/as long as I can breathe, my heart will be for You"). These sorts of lyrical choices positively separate Heller from other worship artists who rely on overused catchphrases. Where this approach doesn't work as well, however, is when Heller opts for specific stories to make a point; in the same vein as Heller's well-meaning 2010 hit "What Love Really Means," album lead single "Who You Are" doesn't quite get off the ground with stories of unnamed people with disappointments ("All she wanted was a baby to hold/she's still waiting at 41 years old/her life feels like a tragedy/and it's driving her to her knees"). While these sorts of stories could strike an emotional chord for a select few, it can unintentionally limit the otherwise truth-filled song to only apply to these situations and not to the global problems of Heller's listeners. Still, these sorts of issues do little to derail the simple, but reassuring statement of the entire album: "I don't know what You're doing, but I know who You are."
With a decent mix of both the new and unfamiliar, Loved is a great step in JJ Heller's musical journey. Changing a musical approach like Heller has for Loved has plenty of perils attached, but they mostly pay off, and save for a few nitpicky lyrical issues, the album only benefits from these leaps forward. Loved isn't quite a masterpiece, nor is it even Heller's personal best, but Heller has more than proved her skill, whether she covers lighthearted or serious spiritual issues. With the eternal goal always in sight, JJ Heller has crafted yet another likable record of poise and sensibility.- Review date: 3/10/13, written by Roger Gelwicks of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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