Matt Maher has steadily crafted a noteworthy career in Christian music. In recent years, he has transitioned from "name on the songwriting credits" to opening act to major radio presence. Saints and Sinners finds him in his stride, and adding a unique concept that is, for the most part, quite well executed.
At least six of the songs draw inspiration from specific figures in the history of Christendom, including "Sons and Daughters" (Martin Luther King, Jr.), "Instrument" (St. Francis), "Firelight" (Mother Teresa), "Everything is Grace" (St. Therese of Lisieux), and "A Future Not My Own" (Archbishop Oscar Romero). In some cases, it's a specific quote that establishes the song - Romero said "We are prophets of a future not our own" - and it's an Oscar Wilde quote that names the album. In other cases, the inspiration is more holistic. Maher wrote "Sons and Daughters" with Jason Ingram and Ike Ndolo. Maher challenged the latter to write from his own experience as an African-American male living in Missouri in the shadow of the civil rights movement. The song is triumphant, but not naďve, opening with these lines, "How free is anyone, when some are still in chains / Slaves to brokenness, all this blindness."
Other co-writes prove effective, including partnerships with David Leonard and Leslie Jordan (All Sons & Daughters), Jon Foreman (Switchfoot), and Bo and Bear Rinehart (NEEDTOBREATHE). The latter two are particular gems. "Instrument" merges the best of Foreman's solo EPs with Maher's big anthems. "Deliverer," the Rinehart co-write, sneaks up on the listener, and allows Maher to unleash the nascent rocker that often escapes onstage.
Maher is in excellent form throughout. He displays a sneaky-impressive vocal range, both in octave and emotion. "Because He Lives (Amen)" is classic Maher, with triumphant vocal over strings, piano, and pounding drums, and it's been on the Billboard charts for 20 weeks and counting. By contrast, "Abide with Me" is tender, reflecting a brokenness longing for Heaven.
Other tracks stick a little too close to formula. "Land of My Father," in particular, has a fairly generic back beat and feels a little flatter than it should. "Rest" features a captivating vocal from The Vespers and a strong lyric from the 23rd Psalm, but in the end it sounds a bit like an attempt at a Civil Wars sound-alike. On the whole, though, Saints and Sinners finds Maher stretching stylistically, which is to be applauded.
The album's concept is commendable, but its realization is uneven. Without the backstory, it is likely that only the MLK inspiration would be apparent to many listeners. Perhaps that's intentional; concept albums can be a bit overblown when the concept is forced into every lyric. But in falling too hard on the side of subtlety, the power of the concept is lost.
Saints and Sinners solidifies Maher's presence as a thoughtful songwriter capable of crafting diverse but dependable music, and a performer who conveys a range of passions in a unique voice. The album will certainly appeal to longtime fans, but it has enough additional elements (church history, hymnody, collaboration) to widely broaden Maher's already robust listener base.- Review date: 3/20/15, written by Mark D. Geil of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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