As my readers may or may not know, new music from Steven Curtis Chapman drops in a few days (August 9, to be precise). It’s called Re-creation (or Re:creation, depending on how you read the cover—I think it’s meant to be a little joke). The full album was “leaked” to Rhapsody before the release date, so I just listened to it yesterday. Wanted to share my take on it for anyone who’s interested, even though I know I usually stick to reviewing southern gospel music here. New music from Steven Curtis Chapman is a significant enough event that I feel it deserves some attention even on a southern gospel blog. ;)
This project contains five new songs, a hymn cover, and eight old songs Steven chose to go back and “re-create,” many of which carry new meaning for him after grieving the loss of his daughter. Let’s talk about the new stuff first. I should say right from the outset that if you have heard the first single, “Do Everything,” and are unimpressed, DO NOT judge the rest of the album based on that song. It’s a sweet sentiment, but let’s just say not one of his better moments. It is musically uninspired, monotonic to the point of verging on hip-hop, and blends disappointingly well with the rest of the radio-ready, cookie-cutter CCM that’s circulating at the moment. MUCH more satisfying is the second new song on the project, “Long Way Home,” which was written and performed on the ukulele. Steven took up the instrument recently and fell in love with it, so naturally he wrote a song on it. The result is a poignant delight, if I can describe it that way. It’s a delight, because it sounds delightful (there’s even a little whistling in there). As Steven says, “You can’t not smile when you play the ukulele.” Yet it’s poignant because the lyrics carry a poignant, sad hopefulness with them. It is the bittersweet anthem of a weary pilgrim.
The song “All That’s Left” is a thoughtful meditation on love, with some hat tipping to Paul in the bridge (“Love endures all things and believes all things and hopes all things…”). It’s hard for Steven to write a bad song, and this one is solid, but it seems to lack that extra something to move it from “solid” to “great.” Perhaps it’s the music, because the lyrics are pretty powerful. At any rate, it would have made a much better first single than “Do Everything.”
Another new song, “Meant To Be,” was first released in conjunction with the VeggieTales Christmas movie It’s a Meaningful Life, which focused on adoption and actually featured the voice of Chapman’s second adopted daughter. It is vintage SCC and one of the best new songs on the project, with a flowing 6/8 groove that recalls “Remembering You” and heart-warming lyrics addressed to the child who was “perfectly, wonderfully, beautifully meant to be.” You can go behind the song with Steven here and watch the music video here.
Finally, the last new song, “Sing Hallelujah,” isn’t even really a full song. It’s more like a chorus which is used to close out the project. We’ll come back to that later. For now, let’s move on to the re-created songs. Honestly, some of the self-cover choices were a little surprising to me. I had expected to hear new versions of songs like “My Redeemer is Faithful and True,” or “God is God,” or “His Strength is Perfect,” all songs Steven himself has named when talking about old material he goes back to now. However, I think there was less of a focus on those songs, because an album full of covers like that would have resulted in a tone very similar to Beauty Will Rise, a gut-wrenching project of songs inspired by Maria’s loss that came out a couple years ago. Instead, he pulled out more cheerful, hopeful numbers like “The Great Adventure” and “Heaven In the Real World,” to express the new hope he’s finding on the journey as this wound heals.
And guess what? It actually works really well. Sure, a few songs wouldn’t have been on my must-do list (“Live Out Loud,” “Dive,” “Magnificent Obsession”), and some of the re-creations work better than others (the new version of “Dive” just flat-out doesn’t work, and “The Great Adventure” also seems to have lost something in re-creation), but Steven continues to demonstrate that he’s one of the few artists who can “reinvent” himself and actually still make good music. He even got me to enjoy one of his more annoying songs for the first time (“Live Out Loud”). A non-masterpiece it remains, but the clapping, stomping folk/country facelift it gets here is just infectious. (I know, it was the B-3 Hammond. Someone must have told him that’s my weak spot—toss in a little Hammond, on anything, and I’m hooked.) And some of the new versions are positively magnificent. “Heaven in the Real World” just soars. I like it even better than the original, and believe me, it takes a darn good reinvention to get me to say that for a song I like. (It must have been the hammered dulcimer. And that banjo at the end. Dang, another weak spot.) “Speechless” sparkles with more hammered dulcimer, strings, and even a majestic touch of horns. Another cover that surpasses its original. “More To This Life” and “For the Sake of the Call” have already gotten acoustic re-makes on Steven’s Abbey Road project, but these versions are different yet again. (For one thing, the Abbey Road versions were abridged while these contain all the lyrics.) The new “More To This Life” takes a piano-led approach, and both tracks lean heavily on the cello. While both cuts are lovely, I thought “For the Sake of the Call” turned out a little too slow and weary. It’s gorgeous, but I miss the vigor of the original, or the joyful jam session feel of the Abbey Road re-make.
Steven covers one hymn on this project: “Morning Has Broken,” which perfectly captures the record’s themes of re-creation and new dawning. His oldest son Caleb (who’s formed his own indie rock band), is featured on the hymn’s second verse. His voice is different from his dad’s, yet noticeably similar, particularly on the first line—for a second, I didn’t even realize it wasn’t Steven singing. “Morning” continues seamlessly into “Sing Hallelujah,” and as short as this piece is, it may be the most beautiful moment on the album. It’s difficult not to be moved and caught up in Steven’s swelling, triumphant realization that “it’s a brand new, beautiful day.” He almost sounds like he’s weeping by the end of it, and the listener is sure to be weeping with him. If the last record proclaimed “Beauty will rise,” this is the proclamation that beauty has risen. Indeed, Allelujah.
The Bottom Line: While a project full of 10 or 11 amazing brand-new songs would obviously have been ideal for die-hard fans (that would be me), you won’t hear us complaining much over this offering. It simply does the heart good to hear Steven have fun making music again. Though lyrically it’s more hopeful than Beauty Will Rise, the raw, acoustic production is in a sense a continuation of that project. Instruments like the cello and the hammered dulcimer, which played important roles on that project, are brought back here with stellar results. Bottom line is, this record may have a few tracks I skip over, but it’s a truly refreshing listen and an intriguing foretaste of what’s to come as Steven continues to grace the world of Christian music with his presence. I recommend it to anybody who’s a fan of his and anybody who appreciates good music, period.