TUESDAY REVIEW – SOVEREIGN GRACE (THE GATHERING)

You guys know how I feel about the music of Sovereign Grace.

I use their songs frequently at Bethel and find them to be the most doctrinally consistent producer of worship music for churches.

The records have always been hit and miss for me. Some of their releases have captivated me – each song inspiring and teaching, a perfect resource for the church. Other records have fallen flat for a host of different reasons.

Regardless, following the catalog of a church network has been more consistently rewarding than an allegiance to any particular record label as a label’s output is far more randomized and market driven.

The Gathering is SovGrace’s most recent live release, recorded at their biennial “Worship God” conference.

THERE IS A REASON
The album definitely continues SovGrace’s legacy for clear, intelligent, Biblical lyrics. It’s encouraging to hear a live record open with the sentiment that we gather for God’s glory. Often live records can communicate a much different priority – that these recordings are intended to “capture” some movement or to celebrate gathering for gathering’s sake. Musically, it’s a syncopated, trendy arrangement based on a simple melodic structure. Stylistically, it’s a bit frantic. Melodically, the song is a simple worship chorus, but the song sections veer from syncopated and musically challenging to sounding like a worship chorus from the 90’s. It’s a good song, but feels like too much musical experimentation. I’d pass on it.

GREATER THAN WE CAN IMAGINE
Well, we already do this one at our church, so you can assume I dig it! I’ve always been impressed at this song’s unique thematic focus. Originally, I didn’t know what to expect from a song with this title – I was concerned that a song about our “imagination” in worship might be a bit light theologically. Boy, was I wrong! I love that the song saves the “imagination” image while it clearly describes our constant response to the Father and what it produces in us. This one’s been updated quite a bit, too, most noticeably in that it’s led by a female, which is a nice choice. The melody is perfect for a strong female vocalist. However, once again the band parts seem too involved. I don’t want to be redundant, but since I know the original version, I can see where the band and producers have left the straight rock groove of the previous version for a healthy dose of jarring musical experimentation. (They did cut out the strange bridge breakdown and replaced it with some lead guitar, which has much better flow.)

COME PRAISE AND GLORIFY
This one is hard for me, as I get very distracted by the worship leader vocal. SovGrace’s quality has always been a gamble for me. Their studio records tend to feature very carefully-selected vocalists and band parts that are precise and fine-tuned and their live records sound more like live-board recordings from your average praise band. There’s a place for both of those types of musical collections, but this song is the first strong dose of what I consider the “praise team” vibe. The song is still a good one, specifically the chorus – both musically and thematically. I love it’s melody and it’s clear picture of all the things we’re actually praising when we sing. Originally, I wasn’t nuts about the first two lines in each verses. The note choice on the back end of the melody is a bit unexpected, but as I’ve listened, I’ve realized it’s actually quite fun to sing.

SHINE INTO OUR NIGHT
Now we’re cooking. This acoustic guitar based confession sings like a poem and the image of God as light is handled beautifully. It’s an honest song, both about our fallen state as well as God’s amazing faithfulness. The band stays back and lets the vocal carry the power of the song. If we were do the song, I’d definitely strive to keep the band’s laid-back approach, especially on drums and bass. I could see a rhythm section being tempted to go too big on this one, but simple is better, in this case. I’d definitely do this song at my place.

HAVE MERCY ON ME
Sticking with the confessional theme, the album stays acoustic. I don’t think the melody in this one is as easy on the ears on the previous song, but I think that could be solved by holding the notes a bit longer to make it a bit less “talky.” The pre-chorus and chorus reminds me of some of Vineyard’s best by the likes of Doerksen and Brenton Brown. I can’t help but love a song that honestly recognizes that our sins deserve punishment…we don’t sing enough about that these days! Yes, the takeaway is obviously God’s steadfast love, but it’s a beautiful answer to this song’s assessment of the debt that Jesus paid. Another keeper.

NOW WHY THIS FEAR
Let’s see…first off the title is awesome. Secondly it opens with a percussion intro overlayed with a droning electric guitar part. It’s like this song was made for my church. I think this is probably the strongest song start-to-finish. It answers the role of fear by proclaiming that all our trust is in Jesus and that perfect love casts out fear. Once again, SovGrace has provided a song that’s insightful and wise. The chorus is spread out a bit, but that’s answered by a huge bridge. We’re doing this one in 2012, y’all.

ISAIAH 53
Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago I said how much I love songs out of Isaiah? Here’s another one that does a good bit of teaching about Jesus as the atonement for our sins. However, this one is hard to sing. Musically, I can’t figure out if they’re trying to go old-school Integrity style back when reggae was suddenly trendy in church world or if they’re trying to capitalize on something Vampire Weekend would do. I do know that it’s the worst opening on the record. The riff is actually two electric guitar parts, but the song opens with the 2nd guitar which seems to throw the crowd off and makes it hard to follow the groove. Weird. I’d pass.

GENEROUS KING
I dig a song that helps us to cultivate gratitude for everything. Love the chorus, it’s a rocker and it’s easy for a crowd to jump on. The verses seem hard to sing, but I might be guessing that one wrong. The more I listen to it, I  realize that they’ve made sure that the phrases is exactly same in every verse, which would probably help the singability. The worship leader also throws a “whoa” part that could be a fun crowd vocal. I dig the bridge line, “Thank You for Your goodness, poured on us through Jesus.”

WHEN YOU MOVE
I don’t think Hillsong invented the big drum ballad with a Rhodes piano intro, but every time I hear that, I think them. This one is pretty Hillsongy, but much more doctrinally sound. Perfect song for a female worship leader who can belt. I appreciate how they tackled the idea of God “moving.” It’s Biblical and church-focused, which I’m all about. This one will be fun for any band to play. It could be a hit if churches would give it a shot.

YOUR WORDS OF LIFE
I was tempted to pass simply because of the 90’s-sounding acoustic intro. Then I heard the lyrics.
When I realized that this was a memorable, easy-to-sing song asking God to speak to us through scripture, I decided that intro wasn’t so terrible after all. Churches of America, please start singing this song.

SHOW US CHRIST
Another song about God’s Word…and this one instructs us that we find Christ through scripture. The modern-day worship catalog is littered with songs about “seeing” Jesus or God, but many of those songs do a poor job of helping us understand how that actually happens. I’m so grateful that Sovereign Grace is releasing songs like this. It is a huge blessing to the church.

ALL I HAVE IS CHRIST
This is one of Sovereign Grace’s hits that began making the rounds this past year. I think it existed as a demo and as a favorite at some of the SG conference. The vibe is definitely a modern hymn and does what good hymns do – present a massive amount doctrine in a short amount of time – very clearly. I had never heard this tune led by female vocal, and it’s strong. The chorus on this thing is perfect.

WE HUNGER AND THIRST
Once again, these folks have taken a common worship concept and fill it with depth and purpose. We hunger and thirst as we remember His sacrifice! And the bridge…takes us to Communion.
I also like where this one goes musically. By adding a slight shuffle, the drummer adds some substantial groove to a song that initially sounds like a slow jam.

LIFT HIGH THE CROSS
A big minor-chord rocker. There’s a trendy synth loop in the verses. It’s cool, but might hard for some teams. Once again, they make this one too complicated. Is that where rock music has taken us these days? Does every verse have to be syncopated and choppy? I’m all for landing in the pocket, but sheesh. Passing on this one.

AS YOU GO
I heard an early release of this track a few months ago and loved it. A “sending out” song with power and celebration. It’s definitely a closer and sounds like something any praise band could do well and enjoy. I’m curious to see if it works in other places in the set. It’s an awesome musical benediction – “May you go in the love of Your Father God / May you go in the grace of Christ / May you go in the power of the Spirit now / Giving glory with your life.” Never go wrong with the Trinity, worship leaders. Bethel is fo sho gonna’ use this one. The spoken Word from Ephesians 3:20 is icing on the cake. This is what they call a JAM.
____________
By my count, that’s eight songs that I’d for sure do at my church. Eight songs is a lot to get off one record. For those of you on Spotify, I’m including a link to a playlist I made of the 8 songs that I feel are the strongest on the record. If you give it a listen, I’d love to know your thoughts.

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