Amy Grant: Rock of Ages... Hymns & Faith
Label: Word/Curb/Warner Brothers
Sound/Style: stylistic variations of light pop gospel
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Despite Amy Grant's fairytale start in professional music, the singer has struggled in search of her "happily ever after." She successfully straddled the secular and Christian markets for a time, becoming the premier crossover artist to emerge from the CCM genre. However, that balancing act became a stressful tightrope act between her twin listening audiences – neither of which could be counted on as a safety net.
After her divorce from musician Gary Chapman in 1998, and her subsequent marriage in 2000 to country music star Vince Gill, the angel of the Christian set had largely fallen from grace with her fan base. However, before throwing the next stone, trace Grant’s career to the mid-1980s, when she was all but lambasted by Christian fans for crossing the invisible barrier between the CCM and mainstream pop markets. Pop star B.J. Thomas actually committed this trespass earlier, though in his case it was his refusal to shun his former pop legacy that won the ire of critics. Thomas became embittered toward the Christian industry for denying him his hard-earned success. Though Grant has handled it with more grace, she’s hardly been extended that same grace during her career cruxes.
Enter Grant’s Hymns & Faith series, launched with the Legacy disc in 2002 and again endearing Grant with CCM fans. The second in the series, Rock Of Ages, is newly released. Read between the disc’s lines, however, and there are hints the singer has yet to recover from the decades-long, if intermittent, betrayal of Christian fans. (Maybe it’s because I came of age on Beatles albums filled with hidden clues to Paul McCartney’s supposed demise. But in my mind, everything you can see or hear on a record makes a statement or sends a message.) For starters, how about the desert setting in which a black-clad Grant poses soberly? If that seems too subjective, then consider the record itself. Produced by Gill and longtime collaborator Brown Bannister, the disc is excellently assembled, as always, but is notable for the surfeit of effervescence in Grant’s performances. Some of this might be attributed to the middle-of-the-road approach Grant and her production team often chooses to please her largely conservative audience. Also, unlike 2003’s Simple Things, this record is more a stock project than a personal artistic statement.
As Grant notes in the liner notes, these songs are meaningful to her because they represent "countless memories" of family, church and home. Yet when you hear the spirited work of world-class musicians and singers valiantly maintaining the record’s momentum against Grant’s static vocals, one suspects the singer is not so much celebrating an awesome God as searching for solace and a reconnection with her past. This contrast is clearest on the title cut, a duet with Gill on which his soul-drenched contributions highlight Grant’s lifeless vocals. For those attuned to such subtleties, a sad echo hangs over what are otherwise fresh and competent updates of hymns reaching back as much as four centuries. The best of them – "Anywhere With Jesus," "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee" and "Sweet Will Of God," are dressed in countrified threads with superb guitar work from Gill, Dean Parks and Richard Bennett. Pop, celtic and R&B styles turn up as well, making for a collection that is crowd-pleasing, if less than wildly inspirational.
Grant’s calling card "El Shaddai" reappears, sounding fine but seeming a tad damp behind the ears next to such revered old repertoire. Her "Helping Hand," paired with "They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love," fares better, its medium rock edge adding welcome snap to this mostly tame set.
If anyone’s going to know we are Christians by our love, though, Grant should be one of the first recipients, having been batted around pretty soundly in her impressively lengthy career. She’s given us a lot in her 25 years of recording. Perhaps it’s time her listeners gave her a break for being human.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.