Release Date: November 16th 2018
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- The Bridge
- Nobody (feat. Matthew West)
- Only Jesus
- In the Hands of the Potter
- Even When You’re Running
- One Awkward Moment
- Awaken Me
- One More Song for You
- Start Right Here
- The Change in Me
- Love Moved First
“…If there’s a singer, a songwriter and someone in the CCM industry who has gone through hard trials, without question the lowest of lows, and has come through the other side somewhat relatively unscathed- it’s probably Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. The band has been around for a very long time, with their 2003 self-titled debut marking plenty more albums and hits, as well as awards and accolades- and with each listener and critic praising the 7-piece worship/pop/CCM band, Casting Crowns takes it all in their stride. Unassuming in the delivery of their songs (I don’t think they care very much for the flash, the big nor the grandiose!), it’s not really the music that they’ll be remember for so much, but it’s the lyrics. Biblical lyrics rooted in spiritual truth about a God who loves and adores us for all eternity. And about practical things that we can do in our daily walk with God so that we can stay closer to Him. Casting Crowns, for all their good songs such as “Who Am I?”, “Voice Of Truth”, “If We Are The Body”, “Praise You In The Storm”, “Lifesong”, “Slow Fade”, “East To West”, “Until The Whole World Hears”, “Glorious Day”, “Courageous”, “Jesus Friend Of Sinners”, “Thrive”, “All You’ve Ever Wanted” and “Just Be Held”; are still doing this artist and music thing as part-time. And that’s…quite remarkable, that they can keep going at this pace, and be full time youth pastors at all of their respective churches, yet still churn out high quality albums. But if that doesn’t wow you, then their latest album The Very Next Thing will…” Taken verbatim from my review of the Casting Crowns’ single “Only Jesus” which released a few months ago, these words I wrote still ring true today, as the 7 piece CCM/worship/pop-rock band ready themselves upon the release day of Only Jesus. While it’s true that The Very Next Thing was probably, and still is probably going to be the most personal of the band’s career, in that the bulk of the songs were written and recorded in light of Mark Hall’s cancer diagnosis; Only Jesus has a kind of fearlessness to it overall, and a sense of ‘ok, we know where God is leading us, so what do we do now, and what are the things God is telling me to do in my life to get to where He wants me to go?’ Because Mark was literally teetering on the edge of death- and he could have died at any moment, so I guess the boldness and courage displayed here is warranted? Mark’s got a new lease on life, so why not use it actively to spread the gospel more and more?
Fast forward two years later, and we now have a brand-new album. Only Jesus is the culmination of possibly the most difficult two years to song-write…for Mark at least. The immediate result is the title track from their upcoming studio album, the lead single. Written by Mark, Matthew West and Bernie Herms, we are met with probably the most CCM song they’ve recorded since “All You’ve Ever Wanted”. Some critics would say that the band have stagnated, that Mark’s cancer hasn’t impacted the band the way that it should have. But I say something different. I say that Casting Crowns are doing what they do best; and they are doing it well. Strong Biblical truth, and songs that impact your soul, no matter how cliché they sound. With the backdrop of this mid-tempo CCM radio friendly melody being light electric guitar and strong keys, it’s inevitable for this track to be flooded on stations like KLove or Air1 soon. But the cliché nature shouldn’t faze anyone, nor detract from enjoyableness and impactfulness. These guys have a calling, and now more than ever, this calling is needed by the world, even if they don’t know it. This song probably isn’t the most creative, not by a long shot. But it is the most needed this year, by a long shot. The only thing we ought to remember is Jesus’ name, and if it isn’t, if at any stage of life we want to or feel we ‘need to’ build our kingdoms up instead of His, then we’re doing life wrong. The only way to life, according to Mark in this song and I agree with Him; is to put Jesus first, as ‘…Jesus is the only name to remember…’. Everything else will follow later on. So let’s listen to this song, and be impacted. Don’t worry about the simpleness of the music or lyrics. Just let God speak.
The rest of the 11 songs build upon the theme laid bare in the title track, as Mark invites us on a personal journey and we are blessed to hear quite possibly the strongest tracks lyrically of their whole career. Album opener “The Bridge” is as honest and earnest as anything I’ve heard in 2018, as this typical CCM track musically turns into a fantastic opener as strong biblical lyrics abound and Mark reiterates that Jesus’ love to us is like a bridge to Him- it is there and all we need to do in order to be in relationship with Him is to just walk across. Simple yet totally profound, and if we start thinking of the path to Jesus as simple as walking across a bridge, then maybe we won’t be running far from Jesus once we know how close He actually is. 3 minute CCM/pop number “Nobody” is a stirring duet with Matthew West and is almost guaranteed to be the second single (I’d be really surprised if it isn’t!) as both vocalists (3 if you include Megan Garrett!) convey the ever true theme that as we are spreading the gospel and making Jesus’ famous, it’s not our names that are important, but Jesus’. We are in fact nobodies, but that shouldn’t really bother us. We’re just vessels and agents of change, pointing the world to the true Someone who really matters. The Somebody worth speaking about is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ. As Mark, Matthew and Megan firmly assert that Jesus used a bunch of nobodies in the Bible to draw the world to Him, it shouldn’t be a surprise that He still does that now- in fact it should really be an honour to be a nobody. Food for thought, right?
The tempo then slows down quite a lot for the “Oh My Soul”-esque acoustic guitar driven “In The Hands Of The Potter”, as we are reminded that Jesus keeps making and remaking us over and over- every time we fall down and feel unworthy and full of shame and guilt, and every time ‘…my world is breaking me…’, Jesus’ ‘…love is [still] shaping me, and now the enemy is afraid of what You’re making me…’; while the mid tempo guitar led ballad “Even When You’re Running”, though standard musically, is a companion piece to “In The Hands Of The Potter”, as lyrically this track is strong and reiterates that even as Jesus longs to remake us over and over again into people more like Him, before that happens, He has to pursue us- and He will keep doing so, even when we’re running the other way like Jonah. God moulding us like clay is scary, but He won’t give up, and that thought of Him searching for us specifically should give us comfort.
Worship numbers “Awaken Me” and “One More Song For You” follow, and are standard Crowns melodies, although there’s still content here for us to be inspired by and excited about. The former melody poses the question of who do we turn to at our wits end- with the answer being to lean on Jesus as we cry out ‘…let Your fire make holy these lips unclean, shine down in all Your glory, awaken me…’; and the latter is an ardent, no-holds-barred and passionate cry for help, in the sense that all we can do is to just sing out ‘Holy’ to God, because He is faithful and He is sovereign. It doesn’t really matter if our entire world is upside down, as Casting Crowns encourage us to firmly believe that ‘…as long as there’s breath in me, Lord, there will always be one more song for You…’– and it is through songs like these that we are encouraged to keep singing and keep fighting the good fight, even if there seems to not be a reason; because there is, and the reason is that we’re still alive.
As Megan eloquently and majestically leads the piano led ballad “The Change In Me”, confidently assuring us that Jesus Christ is the cause for the root change in us, we are met with a Kim Walker Smith-like part worship/part reflection and introspection piece, and one that I am sure will enter into the walls of the church on Sunday mornings sooner rather than later. “Loved Moved First”, the penultimate track, is a 3-and-a-half-minute brilliant depiction of what grace is like, as Mark reminds us that Jesus runs after us, that He makes the first move, chasing us down even when we are running away (think the parable of the lost Son and the parable of the lost Sheep!); and even the album closer “Home” is a beautiful encapsulation of how our relationship with Jesus should be like- in communion with Him despite our shortcomings, because of the fact that He is our Home and He is our Refuge and Shelter. Yet it is the personal highlights “Start Right Here” and “One Awkward Moment” that confront and challenge and are THE songs I’d point potential fans to listen to, just so that they are made aware of how honest and personal Casting Crowns are as songwriters, just how brilliant they are right now, and the inevitability of the band topping even this flawless effort- I believe that their best is yet to come by far!
Both “One Awkward Moment” and “Start Right Here” are in my mind ‘sequels’ to previous Casting Crowns’ songs, which may or may not be the band’s intention. “Start Right Here” is what I call a continuation to a calling out of the church in “If We Are The Body” way back in 2003, as Mark in this track compels us to start moving and actively sharing the gospel to others as it really starts with us- there’s no way we can just settle for the mundane and still expect the world to change. Mark uses clever imagery and lets us all know that while we all have good intentions and want to see lives come to Christ and the world a better place, on some level we’re comfortable and we don’t want to move. This is exactly the type of attitude we do not want to exhibit, and as a song, “Start Right Here” is necessary in today’s culture as we shift from being Christian spectators to Christian doers. While “One Awkward Moment”- in my mind a spiritual sequel to either “Here I Go Again” or “Does Anybody Hear Her”- talks about us getting out of our comfort zone in another way- sharing the gospel to someone when we can’t find the words. As eloquently put by Mark, if we truly love our family and friends who do not know Jesus, the awkward conversation should be had anyway- and I’ll just leave it at that because Mark says things better than I anyway- and it is from me knowing the story behind this song that I reckon this track could become the next big hit, not because it’s a single, but because it gets us out of our comfort zone in sharing our testimony with no fear:-
“…We were talking about sharing our story with people. Your story is who you were before you met Jesus, what happened when you met Jesus and what’s life been since you’ve met Jesus. That’s your story and we should all as believers be able to tell our own story. We were talking about how there is something that gets in our head right before we share the gospel with somebody that tells us, ‘You are just about to blow this. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not a smart enough Christian. You’re not a good enough Christian. Just keep your mouth shut,’ especially when they are friends. When it’s somebody we love, we’re scared to do it…this is what happens with songs. I didn’t plan to say it. It just came out. I said, ‘The people that you love, if you really do love them, they are worth one awkward moment.’ Aren’t they? Aren’t they worth one awkward moment, just pushing through and saying, Look I love you, but you’ve got to know that I’m praying for you. I’ll tell you right now, I’ll be the biggest train wreck in heaven but God loves me and I know he loves you, and if he can save me, I know he can save you.’ Teenagers tend to look at the ground a lot, but I saw heads come up when I said that. I knew this is something that needs to said and it’s probably the strangest song title I’ve ever had. When people saw the title and hadn’t heard the song they were like, ‘One Awkward Moment?’ What is THAT about’? I think it could be a movement of just saying, ‘Hey what if you just took three minutes of courage and just shared the gospel with somebody you love? What would happen?’…”
“…maybe if Crowns would have happened when I was younger, I could have gone rock star with it. I think if I was younger I wouldn’t have been able to handle the success and all of that, but I was 34 when this started. I was a pastor and I knew that this is a lot bigger than songs, a lot bigger than music. This is four minutes of someone’s life. That’s what a song is. It’s just a blip on the radar. What I understand is that people right now are running their race and when they listen to one of my songs, I get to run a lap with them. Just four minutes of their race, I get to run with them, and if I get to run a lap with this many people what am I bringing to them? What am I saying? I don’t need to write riddles. I don’t need to be vague. I need to get to the point because life is hard and people are hurting. They need hope and sometimes they need challenge. Sometimes they need truth and it might even be hard truth, but they need it in love. And if I’m going to get to run a lap with them, I’m not going to point them to me. I’ve got to point them to something bigger and that’s what I see our music as. It’s us getting to run a lap with you in your race…” With nothing much more to say about this compelling and deeply impacting album than what I’ve outlined already (except to say that Only Jesus so far is on par with Thrive and may even eclipse Come To The Well and The Altar And The Door with more and more listens; let me say that the title track is probably one of my favourite songs of the year, and will still be there come December time; while songs like “One Awkward Moment” and “Start Right Here” are quite confronting but necessarily so. As this is the band’s first album post Mark Hall’s cancer, the project proves why Casting Crowns will be around for a long time yet, and why they have stayed as long as they have as a band together. So what is next for the group? As long as Mark is alive…it’s new music. And tours and growing the kingdom. But for the near future, it’s ensuring anyone with hears to listen becomes immersed in these heartfelt 12 tracks. So what are you guys waiting for? Let us hear Mark speak the truth in love, and be reminded that it is only Jesus that needs to be at the centre of our lives. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?
3 songs to listen to: One Awkward Moment, Starts With Me, Nobody
RIYL: Matthew West, Tenth Avenue North, We Are Messengers, MercyMe, Hillsong UNITED