Rocketown Records/The Fuel Music
Release Date: February 16th 2018
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- A Million Lights
- Something in My Heart
- Your Love
- Love Always Wins
- Crashing Waves
- Hey Love
- You Make Me Feel This Way
- Who You Are
“…I honestly didn’t think I was going to do a record. I was still grieving the passing of my Dad who I was extremely close to. [But] one day the flood gates opened and I couldn’t hit record fast enough. I went to my management and said I think I have a wild idea. I think I’m supposed to do this pop record and I think I’m supposed to do this worship record and release them back-to-back weeks…” It’s been a long time since Michael W. Smith released anything new. After releasing Wonder in 2010, Smitty signed to a new label (Capitol Christian Music Group) and unveiled 3 albums in a year (Hymns, Sovereign and The Spirit Of Christmas). Yet after that year, Michael’s father, whom he describes as ‘…my greatest fan…’, passed away. Michael was grieving, so it’s understandable that a new album wouldn’t be straight away. Well, everyone, that day has come. Actually, those days have come. Yep, plural. Smitty is back, as an independent artist on Rocketown Records, with 2 albums. A Million Lights released a week and a half ago, and Surrounded dropped a few days ago. While my brother will review Surrounded in the next day or so, I’d like to quickly examine A Million Lights, probably one of my favourite Michael W. Smith albums holistically since 2004’s Healing Rain.
One of CCM’s most respected and popular artists who helped paved the way for modern CCM (alongside artists like Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Third Day, Point Of Grace, dc Talk, Newsboys, Jars of Clay and many, many others); the writer of famous songs such as “Secret Ambition”, “This Is Your Time”, “Friends”, “Live The Life”, “Place In This World”, “Agnus Dei”, “Come To The Cross”, “Cry For Love” and “Healing Rain”; has made a brilliant a comeback, with yet another label change and the overall genre of his music on A Million Lights drastically changed from worship to… EDM? Yep, Smitty has recorded a whole album (13 songs to be precise- yep a whole album, not just one or two tracks), of pure electronic and dance music. It’s not the genre he’s known for, it’s not what I was expecting, not what the public was expecting, and certainly gained a lot of critics. I’ll admit it, that it took a while for me to become used to the new style Smitty has employed here. But now I can boldly asset that so far A Million Lights is my favourite album of 2018.
Releasing 3 singles (1 official and 2 promotional) prior to album release, fans were able to hear a teaser of what to expect. And boy were we treated to something experimental and different in a very good way! Opening with stirring electric guitar and vibrant synth, we are blessed to hear on the title track the trademark Smitty sound as Michael ardently highlights the notion that all of creation cries out ‘…for You, all the stars are singing with You, every day I’m feeling alive…’. Lyrically and thematically simple in nature with respect to every living thing on earth praising our Lord and King because of everything He’s done for us; Smitty’s inspiring melody is sure to touch someone’s life as we dig a little deeper, and marvel at the One who made the stars, the lights, and everything we see around us.
While the second promotional single “Love Always Wins”, is led by haunting and mysterious synth and hard hitting drum beats, as we are introduced into a piano heavy mid-tempo ballad, where Smitty earnestly and fervently relays to us the notion that sometimes in this crazy world, we can get caught up in the lies that the empty feeling that we have inside of us is all that there is, and all that there is going to be. No matter what, we won’t be able to escape our mundane existence, however Smitty speaks truth in this song, reassuring us that ‘…I cannot see You but I know You’re near, no need to hide, no need to fear, You know the light’s gonna find us, Love always wins…’. Jesus will always find us in the end, and will stir inside out hearts a desire for something greater than ourselves, as we navigate life with a new perspective, knowing that we are not alone, and knowing that He has it all in the palm of His hand. What a freeing and confronting song, one that I will gladly listen to time and time again for encouragement when I am feeling down. As for the final promotional single “Crashing Waves”, co-written with Enation frontman Jonathan Jackson (also an actor who’s currently on Nashville on CMT!), we are glimpsed into probably the most electronic song on the album, with remix effects and explosive synth abound. It’s one of my favourites on the album also, as we are presented with a vivid account of the gospel and the fact that we are changed because of Jesus’ resurrection, that ‘…somebody hears the Son, in the midnight of suffering, my tears are falling down, and crashing like waves, somebody stole the pain, a thief in the night came, I’ll never be the same, You rolled this stone away…’. As we remember and dwell upon the extent of Jesus’ love for us and how He sacrifice Himself; we can be and should be in awe of Him, and willing to do whatever Jesus wants- because our life is not our own, it is His. Well done Smitty for these 3 inspiring anthems that are sure to stand the test of time.
The rest of the album is just as impactful as the aforementioned three singles from A Million Lights, and while still showcasing the same MWS sound we’ve all come to know and enjoy, also contains extensive experimental sounds. This may shock us and come from left field, but ultimately shows us a side of Smitty that is daring, risk-taking, and wanting to be relevant musically to the younger generation, which is commendable and something that may have been hard to pull off, but the end result is seamless and something like Smitty was made to record a pop album. It’s different but it works. “Conversation” is a track that fits very well on mainstream radio, complete with explosive snyth and catchy pulsating electronic drum beats. While lyrically not even mentioning Jesus or Christianity; Michael earnestly sings to us, asking us to listen to our fellow brothers and sisters, and even to our non-Christian friends, as we all heave conversations and healthy discussions about a manner of topics. We may not always agree on everything, but comradery and community is very important, as Michael relays that ‘…I just want to talk to you, I just want to hear what you’re saying…’.
Another fit for mainstream radio is “Something In My Heart”, also another ‘ambiguous’ like ‘worship anthem’ that never mentions Jesus, but is implied, as Michael passionately sings across Owl City-like keys that something has awoken in his heart, presumably the presence of Jesus; while danceable pop tune “Footsteps” is heaps catchy, and thematically is based on the footsteps free verse poem, and probably also a testimony from Michael or someone else he knows, as Michael fervently sings out, across a searing electric guitar solo that ‘… I know that I can see Your footsteps, I’m alright, You’re my guiding light…’. Out of all of the 13 tracks, “Footsteps” is the most radio friendly, and might be a downer for fans of his ballads or ‘songs with more substance’, but I for one love this expansion in musical and lyrical direction- given that he wanted to create a pop album outright, these songs serve their purpose to capture his niche market of younger fans.
If you thought that this pop/EDM album meant no signature Smitty ballads, then rest assured, there are some ‘ballad-ish’ melodies that are sure to please. “Your Love” is somewhat a slow tempo piano led ballad (aside from the fast paced danceable electronic and synth riffs just after every chorus), as Michael ardently relays to us that it is Jesus’ love that overtakes us and invades our every lives, changing our perspective and our love from the inside out; while the honest and emotional piano led “Louder” tells a story of a girl wanting to commit suicide because no one supports her dreams for the future, however Michael sings from the perspective of a supportive person (maybe God?) who encourages her to ‘…play your symphony, let me hear it, keep on saying the words inside your head louder…’. We all have big dreams and plans for the future, which may seem far off if everyone seems against us. But all it takes is one person to believe in us, and God on our side, and then we can conquer anything we put our mind to.
The ambiguously political and ethical statement “Revolution” is a 3-minute pop tune is next, declaring that ‘…we’ll build a bridge to the other side across the great divide, we can make it happen…’ (similar in theme to “Paint The Town Red” from Delirious?); while Smitty also dabbles in bluegrass and country, that’s also infused with EDM and pop, as “You Make Me Feel This Way” is something that Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood or Tim McGraw could possibly record. Smitty could be singing to his wife or to God in this song, but that’s the beauty of ambiguity, as it captures many audiences, and hopefully the love of Jesus can be shared in a covert manner that is non-threatening.
Yet as always with Michael W. Smith albums, it is always the softer ballads that speak to me the most, and it’s no different with A Million Lights. “Hey Love”, co-written with Wayne Kirkpatrick, is a beautiful love song from Michael to his wife (also doubling up as a love song to Jesus) as the piano led emotional rollercoaster has Michael vocally singing near flawlessly. Together with guest vocalist Jordin Sparks, we are met with an honest, personal work of art that is this generation’s love anthem just like “I Will Be Here” by Steven Curtis Chapman was the love anthem for the 90’s. The penultimate track, the piano prominent and strings-led ballad “Forgive”, is based of Smitty’s childhood, and though we are not sure which family member or close friend he is forgiving, it doesn’t matter, as this heartfelt melody is emotional nonetheless, and is probably one of the most personal songs Smitty has ever recorded. However THE track to listen to if you were only to listen to one Michael W. Smith track from A Million Lights is the album closer “Who You Are”. Similar in theme of Cimorelli’s “Who Told You”; this anthemic epic orchestral like soundtrack melody is sung from God’s perspective, reminding us that He is here for us to dismantle the lies told to us from the devil and sometimes from our friends and family, and He is also asking us to ‘…give me time, I’ll heal the pain you feel, give me time, I’ll show you love that’s real, give me time, you haven’t gone too far, give me time, to show you who you are…’. Jesus’ timing is way, way different then ours, and He is asking us to be patient, so that we can and will eventually see that what He is doing is a masterpiece, as He reveals to us everyday who we are in Him. Well done Michael for these brilliant anthems, than on the surface are unlike anything we’ve heard, but when we look a bit deeper, we discover that they are actually vintage Smitty, just sung in a more musically updated way!
“…We need to listen more and talk less. We need to understand more and judge less. We need to love more, and we certainly need to love better. I guess that will always be the case, but it’s sure true for today!… Forever until the world ends, music is the most powerful language there is. It can transform your life on every level, not just the spiritual. It feels right to start this world tour in churches around the country. Music can help people reconnect with why they’re here, and that’s what I want people to take away from my new music…” With the move from being signed to being independent not at all hindering Michael’s musical style, it’s an encouraging sign as Michael continues to impress and show us in A Million Lights parts of his singing and songwriting not previously explored nor focused, expanding his repertoire and giving newer fans a reason to sing out loud and shout, giving God the glory in every aspect of our lives! After being in the business for 30+ years, one may have thought ideas musically and lyrically may not be fresh anymore and Michael’s voice could have been waning. Yet each of these 13 songs (plus the 12 from Surrounded) reminds me that Michael W. Smith isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and that’s definitely a good thing, as we can never get enough ‘Smitty’ songs in our lives! Well done Michael, this album is near flawless- I can’t wait to hear what you have in store for us in the upcoming years!
4 songs to listen to: Crashing Waves, Your Love, Hey Love, Who You Are
RIYL: for KING & COUNTRY, Coldplay, UNITED, Planetshakers, Colton Dixon, needtobreathe, Owl City, Tenth Avenue North