It is not very often I will shell out money for an album that consists of mostly reworked hymns, but Audrey Assad's 2016 release Inheritance is just that good. In fact, as soon as I listened through it on Relevant Magazine's The Drop I realized "This is an album that needs to be listened to on vinyl." It was vinyl-worthy, meaning there was something timeless and set apart about it. (You can purchase the album on vinyl and other formats here.)
There are so many re-tuned hymns projects these days, many of them excellent. From Cardiphonia, to Bifrost Arts, to Indelible Grace, to on and on and on and...well, there is just so many churches and organizations and artists doing great work out there that it is really truly an accomplishment to create a work that actually stands out. Allow me to repeat: Assad's Inheritance stands out.
A great and potentially classic worship album needs to pull off a difficult balancing act of several criteria at once:
1. Have a great set of songs, both melodies and lyrics, without drawing attention to how great the songs are.
2. Have great musicianship that doesn't draw attention to itself.
3. Have a powerful and compelling enough lead vocalist that can lead the songs in such a way that people can follow him or her while at the same time creating a unique artistic expression unto themselves—again, without drawing attention to themselves.
4. Capture actual worshipping on record and not just recordings of worship songs.
By my estimation Audrey Assad, along with her producer Daniel James, excels at every one of these "criteria" on Inheritance.
Her piano stylings closely resembles that of Fernando Ortega (who makes a vocal appearance on "Oh, the Deep, Deep, Love of Jesus"), both of whom strike the balance between simplicity and virtuosity in their playing. As musicians they contain this innate sense of knowing when enough is enough and not going beyond that. Her arrangements are often contain only a few instruments but are impeccably exquisite. Everything is ordered, nothing out of place, and yet the sound is entirely relaxed.
Her vocals are in a similar vein. At times breathy and delicate and not afraid of sparse accompaniment, Assad knows how to pull off confident hushed tones. But she can belt when she needs to as well. As a "worship leader" she has developed the skill of being able to fully express her personality while also disappearing completely into the songs. It is through the boldness of her performance that she points us to Christ who is our only hope.
Her backing musicians follow her at every step, continuing the balancing act. Most of the album contains lush a-melodic string soundscapes (arranged by Eleonore Denig), creating in their spaciousness an almost negative space for Assad's vocals. They are a sound paradox, blending in while standing out. While percussion is not exactly prominent on the album, two songs ("Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Be Thou My Vision") feature recorded drum loops creating another kind of negative space for Assad by intensifying otherwise subdued hymns.
Assad's three original tracks are budding classics and take on a somewhat darker tone. "New Every Morning" is a meditation on human frailty and sin juxtaposed with the mercy of God as seen through the backdrop of the creation of the world and the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh. "Even Unto Death", which Assad wrote in reaction to the deaths of 21 beheaded martyrs at the hands of ISIS, is a simpler meditation on taking delight in Christ no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, even to the point of our own deaths. She co-wrote these songs with Matt Maher (who also makes a guest vocal appearance) and if you are familiar with his work you can hear his influence in the compositions. Finally, album opener "Ubi Caritas", a setting of the Latin hymn, hauntingly manages to fuse together the essence of plainchant and Celtic melodies in the form of modern popular music.
After the first time listening through the album I thought "I have no idea when Fernando Ortega is going to release an album next, but surely this is the closest thing to one of his albums that we are going to get." Quiet and meditative, epic and majestic, containing classic hymns and daring originals, Inheritance might be the worship album of the decade. It is a bold artistic statement, especially for something so humble and unassuming, something that ultimately points away from itself entirely, to the transcendent all-encompassing love of God.
Inheritance is available for purchase on itunes and Amazon as well as her own Pledge Music page.
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