Record Review: Matt Redman's Unbroken Praise

It must be tough being Matt Redman. Or should I say, it must be tough being an aging worship leader, especially a worship leader who is known for writing and recording your own songs, because the one thought looming in the background every time you write something new certainly must be "Can I replicate what I did before? Can I get the Church to sing again? How do I write another song like that?"

What I am about to say might sound like snark but I assure you it is not. Matt Redman has a serious problem on his hands: he is getting older and on his new album Unbroken Praise it is starting to show.
Producer/keyboardist Nathan Nockels (who himself is getting older), his backing band for the recording, and predominant co-writer Jonas Myrin are trying their hardest to make Redman sound relevant to the Worship-Music-Moment, but it must be tough trying to keep up with Hillsong United, Jesus Culture, Bethel Music, Elevation Worship and whoever else is making infectious, synth-heavy, EDM inflected worship music these days.

And how do I know Redman and crew are trying to keep up with everyone? Well, nearly every single song off of Unbroken Praise begins with and is undergirded by a dance beat and a synth hook, is how. There is nothing wrong with any of this of course, unless one sounds like one is trying to keep up with the times.

Is Redman feeling behind the times? Does he feel the need to forever be writing songs "the kids" will like singing and the synthy EDM stuff is what they are into at the moment. But what about the next Now? What then? This is something I have brought up before with Redman's music, especially with the particularly tongue-in-cheek article I wrote about his blatant Mumford & Sons rip-off ("The Multiverse of a Worship Song"), which now seems an increasingly irrelevant attempt given that Mumford now too has gone all synth and electric guitars on their new album. Of course my insight is all subjective intuition (it's all I've got!), but to me it certainly feels like he is attempting to keep up.

It was not always this way. When Redman started out in the mid to late 90's you could tell he was simply trying to make great sounding contemporary worship music (which was just starting to be a big thing) in the pop/rock/folk/adult contemporary vein the Vineyard churches had popularized. For that reason most of his early output now sounds a bit dated—it sounds like the 90's, whatever that means. With 1998's Heart of Worship you could tell he was striving a bit for that anthemic U2/Delirious sound but at the same time his songs sounded unique to who he was as an artist. All his subsequent albums continued in this same "genre", except, to my ears, they became increasingly monochromatic, giving in to the tendencies of the increasingly formulaic tropes of Adult Contemporary Christian Radio.

I guess I have no problem with Unbroken Praise. I love synth music. I have listened to the stuff for years. I guess why I am writing is I am starting to become concerned for the guy. The past three albums, starting with 10,000 Reasons all basically sound the same, becoming increasingly more synth-dependent (actually, you might argue this is the case from Beautiful News onward). The music and the lyrics are also becoming simpler—the phrases shorter, the hooks with less notes, the chord progressions with less and less chords and less interesting chords (for instance, early Matt Redman songs often used strange chords, like the augmented chord in "Let My Words Be Few).  Lyrically, there is an overall noted lack of depth. Listening to the past three albums together as one I become lost in the swirl of 1.) words I believe in generally speaking but cannot connect to either intellectually or emotionally and 2.) in music that manages to just exist but almost never moves me to my core. Redman seems less and less interested in reaching for both the depths of Biblical and theological truths and imagery as well as for crafting a truly excellent and note-worthy (pun intended) melody. More and more it seems like he is making his music for 9th graders with a 4th grade education, like he is concerned no one is going to "get" this stuff anymore, both lyrically and musically, so simpler is better, the more accessible it is, the more likely it will catch on.

Maybe this shows Redman's concerns for an increasingly post-Christian Britain and the need to make the ideas of the faith easy to get to. Maybe it shows Redman has run out of musical/lyrical ideas and is increasingly depending on his co-writers to flesh out his songs. Maybe I am quickly turning into an old curmudgeon who cannot help but moan about the awfulness of the current state of church music.

But this is something I have noted before, from the reasons why I do not sing "10,000 Reasons" at my church, to the Matt Redman songs I think people should be singing but are not, to the 5 pieces of advice I have for him when he records his next album that he apparently did not listen to, which leads to my thoughts on the music/words of Unbroken Praise itself (so far, I have mainly only barfed up my own thoughts about Redman and his legacy—sheesh, what narcissism!)

Point #1: In my article of "advice" for Redman I recommended his next album be recorded in a more low-key and intimate setting. At first glance I thought he had done that by recording in Abbey Road Studios (which is featured prominently in the album's title) rather than a worship conference. However, there were apparently 300 people in attendance for the recording and nothing on the album sounds any different than on his previous live recordings (I recommended he record with only 20-40 present). The sound is still very big and polished and the whole thing still feels like a big worship conference. Again, there is of course nothing wrong with this, but there is nothing on Unbroken Praise to make it stand out sonically from his last 3-5 albums. There are some grand moments of extended spontaneous-like times of worship ("It is Well" and "No Longer I"), but again, Redman once again (pun intended) manages to give into his tendency to make every song either upbeat or a stadium ready anthem with a superfluous bridge thrown in for extra amperage. Why can't he let a song remain quiet throughout? Where is the artist who was once comfortable and so gifted at crafting intimate worship songs where you could dwell contemplatively in God's presence?

Point #2: This is probably Redman's most lyrically shallow album. It makes me sad to say that. I can certainly see him striving for a powerful phrase (as seen here and here and here with the phrases "and the greater the storm, the louder our song" and "Lord, take this life, let it become your throne, Unbroken praise be yours" and "God, let hope arise and faith become the fortress of my heart"), but they nearly all lack in punch or fail to be compelling poetry. There is a pervasive theme to the album, which is that God is with us in our suffering and that even as we suffer we can be drawn back into the worship of God. I love this theme and it is a necessary one, but simply put the lyrics lack artistry. They often seem thrown together and clunky, containing many platitude-like quips on the Christian faith. Again, this might seem snarky, but I am really trying to capture what I see here: a lot of the lyrics seem like they could have been written by some Worship Music Generator computer program. Everything seems right on the surface, everything kind of makes sense and seems to be putting forward a heartfelt prayer to God, and yet it all seems a little soulless.

A good example is his version of "It Is Well With My Soul" which contains newly penned verses and the refrain of the iconic hymn, taken here from he first verse: 

Our scars are a sign
of grace in our lives
And Father, how You brought us through
When deep were the wounds
And dark was the night
The promise of Your love, You proved
Now every battle still to come
Let this be our songs
It is well...

That is one significant case of tired, clunky, pedantic poetry right there.

A horrible example is a song like "Flames":
Let is rise, let rise
An everlasting flame
A fire for Your name
Let it rise, let it rise
A holy offering
That's burning from within...

I cannot bring myself to type out anymore of that, but you should read the rest of the song. I can hardly stand songs like this. I barely know what it is singing about, what meaning it is meant to convey. Its vagaries border on the inane. It is over-hyped spiritual abstraction. The Worship Music Generator machine was turned to 11 on this one.

Finally, in what is either a brilliant callback or lazy self-plagiarism Redman uses some of the exact same themes on "It is Well With My Soul" as he did on an old song "Thank You For the Blood" off of Father's Song (which we regularly sing at my church). In "It Is Well", Redman sings in the pre-chorus of verses 1 & 2 respectively:

Now every battle still to come
Let this be our song
Now every blessing still to come
Let this be our song
And then in the bridge:
You lead us through battles...
You lead us to blessing

Looking back to "Thank You For the Blood" Redman sings:

Thank You
Thank You for the blood that You shed
Standing in its blessing
We sing these freedom songs
Thank You
Thank You for the battle You won
Standing in Your victory
We sing salvation songs
We sing salvation's song

Do you see that? Do you see the same juxtaposition of "battle" and "blessing" as the primary thematic point? I am probably nitpicking here and seeing things that aren't there, but it really seems like Redman is repeating himself, like the Idea-Mill has run dry. Again, per my article my advice would be to read some heavy duty theology and Biblical commentaries. Dive deep into the Scriptures. Read time-tested poetry and hymnody and draw from their meters and aesthetic sensibilities. Immerse yourself in greatness and you will be great.

If I could pinpoint the overall problem I would have with Redman and Co.'s lyrics is they seem to be written for an almost too universal a context, that is, songs that can be sung anywhere by the Church and for any occasion. Whereas a decent amount of Redman's earlier work bordered on being too personal and contextual (e.g., "Heart of Worship"), he has now overcorrected to the point that his songs feel context-less. By attempting to universally appeal to everyone the songs actually become less interesting. To me, the answer for the worship music writer lies somewhere in the paradoxical middle between universal appeal and personal references.

Point #3: The most positive thing I can say about the album is a lot of the songs are fun. There are some good grooves here. Even if I am highly skeptical of the intent behind the EDM stuff, it is not poorly executed. It sounds great, really. The problem, as I see it, is the EDM stuff is mere musical wallpapering, being added to the songs for effect and not changing the DNA of the songs themselves, as Zac Hicks has pointed it out it has the potential to do in his article "How EDM is Changing the Form of Song Structure in Pop Music...And Maybe Congregational Music." That is, I would rather Redman had actually done a full EDM musical exploration, rather than a light seasoning. That would have told us the music itself is nearly equally as important as the lyrics, and not a superfluous add-on based off the current pop-music climate. Personally, I would rather take a risk and venture into new artistic territory than make a set of songs that sounds like Delirious' version of Coldplay's version of an Avicii song.

However, I must say that as I have listened to the songs over and over again they have really grown on me. In the end though there are not many songs I would really consider singing in my church. Sorry... (I am cringing as I type this). The melodies simply are not strong enough. 

The best songs, according this humble blogger, are:
"It Is Well With My Soul"
"Abide With Me"
"King of My Soul"
"No Longer I"
"Majesty of the Most High" (I particularly like the Fleet Foxes-esque intro riff)

Finally, regarding the songs, I must say I also appreciate how he has re-vamped two hymns with some of his own lyrics ("It is Well" and "No Longer I" which takes from "At the Cross"). I hope he continues to do more of this.

I wish I was not so put off by this album, but I am. I think I have grown incredibly weary of what pop-music and CCM have become.

So there you have it. As I said in my previous article in the coming weeks I am going to immerse myself in "new" worship music, music that has come out in the last decade or so and I chose to start with Redman (you view my listening list here: "The Great Worship Music Binge of 2015"). I have to admit, I approach this process with much trepidation: is any worship music of any lasting worth being made nowadays? I believe by default that there has to be, however, the difficulty of sifting through it all to find the jewels feels a little daunting on this side of the experiment. 

My fear is the greater problem is not with Matt Redman himself but with modern worship music in general, that is has fallen into the pit of a certain kind of homogenized pop music, a flavorless, insipid, formulaic industrialized form of art. I am afraid that by putting all this worship music in "competition" with each other, rather than being a rapturous delight of the Church's nonpareil artistic excellence, it will instead be a battle of the blands .

It gives me no pleasure to say I mostly likely will not be singing anything from Redman's Unbroken Praise any time in the near future at my church. Matt Redman might be getting old (while attempting to stay exponentially young) but I suppose I am getting even older (if my tastes in music are any indicator). I guess I will take my place as the grumpy old curmudgeon pointing fingers on his worship stage, holding on desperately to his Vineyard music with nothing good to say about any worship song written in the last 10 years. Humbug!

We'll see I guess.
Disclaimer: Please do not read this as a bitter, smug rant. I meant it as a lament—whether for me or for Matt Redman it remains to be seen. Looking back this feels like one of the more negative pieces I have written on this blog. I want to let it be known that I love Matt Redman and his music. We sing his songs regularly in my church (by my choice, I might add) and his work has ministered to me for years and become a companion in my relationship with God. This article (or "review") is primarily a working out (thus, an essay) specifically of where I see he is at as an artist and generally where I see worship music is headed. It is also a personal essay, where I am in the process of figuring out where I stand in the midst of it all: Am I old, am I a complainer, am irrelevant, or am I on to something. I think I'm in the midst of a lot of processing through how I feel about "contemporary" worship. Seminary kind of messed me up--mostly in good ways, but it also introduced me to a whole realm of hymnody that was previously hidden to me. In the wake of that I've kind of lost my faith in a lot of the contemporary stuff—the music and the lyrics often just strike me as blah...(for lack of a better word). So this review is me working through my sadness, frustration, and confusion. Also, I'm trying to pinpoint why Redman's previous 3-5 albums have disappointed me so much, because he's essentially my favorite worship artist. I am trying to make a critical argument for why I don't like what I'm hearing. So yeah, it was negative...and I feel conflicted about that.
You can listen to a great recent interview with Redman here, on the Beyond Sunday podcast:

Other Worship Related Articles:
The Top 5 Worship Songs From the Last 10 Years
Dear CCLI: Here are 5 ways you can become better
Ask a Worship Pastor #1: What are the greatest misconceptions about your job?


Will said...

You don't need to apologize for writing a critical review of something, man, this was amazing.

I really liked how you articulated the current EDM phase.

JesusFreak said...

Enjoyed this post with a very minor quibble.

"...the Vineyard churches had popularized..."

Vineyard was actually an offshoot of Calvary Chapel. CC founded a record label called Maranatha! Music to record new "Jesus Movement" worship tunes and were arguably instrumental in kicking off the new P&W music paradigm.

Not to take anything away from Vineyard at all! (I have several of their albums.) Simply thought you might be interested in the history.


Unknown said...

Wow. You articulated a lot of my feelings about Matt Redman's recent creative output. IMO, The Father's Song was his last "strong" album. Interestingly enough, I believe it was the last that he worked on mostly in the UK. I'm pretty sure everything after that was primarily recorded/produced in Nashville. Therein lies the beginning of Matt Redman's problem. He came to America and got plugged-into the big Nashville CCM sausage grinder. Sure, he's been co-writing with Tomlin, Maher, Elevation Worship, et al. However, somehow the most-compelling bits seem to make it onto everyone else's albums. Honestly, I think the best thing he could do would be to go back to Britain, lock himself in Martin Smith's studio, and write/produce it all without the greasy fingerprint of Franklin/Brentwood/Nashville on it. Oh the irony that none of what has become known as "contemporary worship" would be where it is without what Redman and delirious did in the early/mid-90s in the wake of Doerksen, Prosch, and Ruis, etc.