Hillsong Music Australia
Release Date: June 9th 2017
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Shadow Step
- Future Marches In
- So Will I (100 Billion X)
- Splinters and Stones
- Glimmer In the Dust
- Greatest of These
- Shape of Your Heart
- Not Today
- Rain / Reign
- Water To Wine
“…why do we fall in love with music in the first place? Why do we believe in what we believe? What was it that led us to this place to begin with? Wonder was a word that we kept coming back to. It’s really easy for us especially as you journey through life, as you get older and mature, you experience more, you’re less fascinated by things, and you could become more limited in our world view which I think is the problem to so much that what we experience in life today. I think there’s more beauty to be found in the world and in people than we often allow ourselves to see…” Hillsong UNITED, well actually Hillsong in all its facets, need no introduction. Whether you believe in Jesus Christ or not, chances are that you’ve heard about this previously small Australian church group now turned global megachurch worship movement, spanning 3 incarnations (Worship, UNITED and Young & Free) and counting, plenty of inspiring singles, no 1 top hits on both Christian and mainstream charts and a plethora of studio and live albums. With the UNITED branch of the worship ministry originating in 1998, we have been blessed to hear so far 11 live albums and 4 studio albums.
With Hillsong being one of the most popular, respected, prolific and inventive worship movements of all time; their music has touched the lives of many locally and globally. Since its inception, this young worship team, particularly Hillsong UNITED, fronted by Joel Houston, Jad Gillies, Jonathon Douglass, Matt Crocker and Taya Smith, have carried on the church’s mission and vision to lift the name of Jesus above all others. Time and time again the worship movement soars to the top of the Christian charts, and though these guys churn out 3-4 albums every year (all incarnations!), they are still the most popular Christian movement in the CCM and worship market today. Especially Hillsong UNITED, since Aftermath, ZION and Empires, they have been been reshaping and reinventing the worship and dance genre more and more. So let me dive into their new surprise studio album Wonder, and examine how Taya, Matt, Joel, JD and Jad have effortlessly and near-flawlessly crafted and skilfully executed a masterpiece and a worthy follow up to the successful album Empires which garnered hit singles such as “Touch The Sky” and “Say The Word”.
Opening the track list is the inspiring title track and lead single, and it is this song and the eternal message that forms the basis lyrically for the entire album. Written by Matt Crocker and Joel Houston, and led by Matt and Taya Smith, and sung against a captivating backdrop of acoustics, synth and hand claps, the mid-tempo worship ballad exquisitely highlights the fact that we can indeed see the world ‘…in light, I see the world in wonder, I see the world in life, bursting in living colour, I see the world Your way, and I’m walking in the light…’, because of all of creation, pointing to the fact that Jesus is here, is alive, and is moving and active in each of our lives. With the first verse alluding to the moment we are truly aware of Jesus, and the second verse directly referencing baptism and the moment we truly believe every Jesus has done for us because of His infinite and unending love; Matt and Taya have brilliantly led an anthem for the ages, as “Wonder” sets the tone for the rest of the album, with the remainder of the 11 songs being potential hit after potential hit and anthem after anthem.
Second track “Shadow Step”, a piano prominent honest, emotional and vulnerable ballad led by Taya Smith, is just as good, if not better, than the near-flawless album opener. Reminding us all that because Jesus is God and He is always good, we can with certainty and with eagerness, walk in God’s shadow, as we chase His leading and His directions in our lives, and trust that His ways are always good. Declaring that ‘…and I won’t be afraid, in every way, You never fail, so have Your way here God, and I’ll sing Your praise, fix my heart to Yours, ready for the unexpected, ready for what You will do next…’, Taya has masterfully shown us a heartfelt prayer that we all can aspire to pray and mean, in the near future. For those of us who aren’t there yet, what a freeing day it will be, when we can say with authority ‘Lord, do Your will in me, and I will go where You lead’. Essentially that’s what this song is saying, so kudos for Taya for conveying this important notion quite nicely.
“Future Marches In” is next, with Matt ardently conveying in this slow tempo guitar led ballad turned epic orchestral worship anthem that as the future unexpectedly catches up to us, we can and should fully embrace the unknown with Jesus by our side, as we learn to trust in Him, who will lead us into a brighter day and divine appointments to share the gospel to those around us. While newcomer Benjamin Hastings leads one of my favourite songs on the album- the emotional slow tempo guitar led ballad and inspiring anthem “So Will I (100 Billion X)”. With the entire song vividly describing how even the stars that were made by God, worship Him as well, there’s a feeling that I get when listening to this Holy Spirit anointed melody that I can’t help but agree with Benjamin, that ‘…if everything exists to lift You high, so will I, and if the wind goes where You send it, so will I, if the rocks cry out in silence, so will I, if the sum of all our praises still falls shy, then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times…’.
If there’s a song on the first half of the album that resonates with me the most (songs 1-6), then that song would be the guitar led mid-tempo reflective and contemplate prayer and ballad “Splinters And Stones”, led by Taya and Joel Houston. As both vocalists ardently remind us of the notion of God’s forgiveness and grace, and the fact that we have earnt it already, and do not have to do anything of our own efforts and accord, we are encouraged to let go of any preconceived ideas of Christianity and works theology. While the concept of grace v works is something Christians will forever be divided over, and something that probably won’t go away in the near future, what I will say about this song is this- just like how the second verse points out that the adulterous woman (who is essentially all of us at one point, if you want to look at it like a metaphor!) wasn’t condemned, but loved, forgiven and shown mercy, we are also accepted into the kingdom of God already, so naturally out of that love and forgiveness shown from God, we should be forever grateful and can’t help but change for the inside out, as we declare ‘…hallelujah, forever now in the greatness of my Saviour, forever now in the brightness of Your name, Jesus on this rock I’ll sing Your praise…’. The first half of Wonder wraps up with the 7-and-a-half-minute epic worship ballad “Glimmer In The Dust”, where Taya, Joel and Jad Gillies each vividly describe our fervent anticipation of heaven, and cleverly juxta-positioning this notion with the ever true idea that as we wait for heaven, our faith should and is in the Lord, because He was, is and is yet to come, and He is faithful and to be trusted.
The piano and acoustic guitar led “Greatest Of These” is hymn like in nature, and is an album highlight, particularly when Brooke Fraser is featured on this song, alongside Joel Houston. Inspired by 1 Corinthians 13:13 where Paul says to us that the greatest commandment is love, this song also reminds me of for KING & COUNTRY’s “The Proof Of Your Love”. If we don’t do anything in love, then it doesn’t matter what we do. If it is feeding the orphans, sponsoring a child, praying for the elderly and the young, or helping the homeless- if all of those aforementioned activities aren’t undertaken with love in our hearts to our Father and our fellow man, then we might as well live for the world and be self-centred, because a live without love isn’t a life worth living. Harsh, I know, but I believe that while “Greatest Of These” may not be a single (which I reckon it should be!), this song nonetheless is necessary. It may not be pretty or comfortable but since when is Christianity comfortable? The moment it is, then I reckon that’s the moment when we need to look inside ourselves and ask the tougher questions of our motivations.
While in my opinion the only real low point of Wonder is the Matt Crocker led electronic, synth and remix heavy “The Shape Of Your Heart”, which eloquently reminds us of the extent of God’s love for us, that ‘…the shape of Your heart [is] where the margins collide, there’s a life hanging over me, over me, where Your love crossed the lines…’ (because of the fact that there is too much electronics and auto tune present here, detracting from the otherwise inspiring message!); the ho-hum moment is short-lived. The poppy, jovial, energetic and bouncy CCM-esque potential single “Not Today”, brilliantly led by Taya, and inspired by Romans 10:13, brings my excitement for the album back up, as we are met with and encouraged by an in-your-face declaration to the devil that he won’t win, and we can confidently ‘…sing the night into the morning, I’ll sing the fear into Your praise, I’ll sing my soul into Your presence, whenever I say Your name, let the devil know not today…’. A song fit for encouraging us when we are feeling down, Taya definitely needs to be commended for being bold and standing up for her beliefs even when the world is on the whole moving in the other direction.
With “Life”, led by JD and Michelle Cook a sombre, sobering, reflective acoustic type piano led prayer to God, singing to Him that His life is in us because of everything He’s done, and the penultimate track “Rain/Reign”, powerfully led by Jad Gillies and Courtney Tennikoff, ardently reiterates the simple notion of Jesus reigning her on earth as it is in heaven, that ‘…Your kingdom reigns, in everlasting grace and wonder, Your love making all things new, Your love making everything beautiful…’; the aptly titled 10 minute long melody “Water To Wine” closes out Wonder with a bang. With possibly the only 10-minute song I’ve heard being Andrew Peterson’s “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone”, I had high expectations for the Joel Houston and Jad Gillies led melody. Boy was I not let down. Despite the length, both Joel and Jas majestically recount to us that just as Jesus transformed the water into wine in John 2:1-11, so is He transforming our lives and our hearts, and we can declare and fully mean that ‘…I’ll stay, stay in Your love, I’ll stay where You are, as long as life remains, so I’ll stay, stay with You, I’ll never walk away, I’ll never be the same, turn this water into wine…’. With a couple of minutes of spontaneous free worship present at the end of the track (which in all fairness could have been omitted, but nevertheless adds to the depth of the track!), Hillsong UNITED end a fantastic album where it began- marvelling at the wonder of Jesus and giving Him all of our praise!
“…Social media connects people, you know, they could be on opposite sides of the world and I’ve had a couple people say ‘Hey, I’m not necessarily Christian. I’m not really sure what I believe in and I’m figuring that out, but your song came on the Spotify playlist and I listened to it and I felt better than I did before, and it just made me feel happy and I just feel a bit lighter and I’m just interested in hearing other music, and do you have any other stuff? Could you point me in the direction to find it?’, and I think that’s kind of awesome and kind of the point at what music should do for people. It should encourage them and they should feel inspired with whatever was in their hand and they would go forth and just give it everything that they have. I love that and it’s someone who may not necessarily believe what I believe, but they can hear the message and if they can feel uplifted, then that’s the best thing ever…” Personally I thought that a new studio album from Hillsong UNITED could not top the awesomeness of Empires, ZION and Aftermath before it, but Wonder is one of my favourite 2017 albums and one of my favourite albums from the band overall. I must admit, when I first saw the press release for the album, I was a bit apprehensive given that this was a ‘surprise’ album; however this batch of new melodies and hopefully soon-to-be classics are quite impacting, challenging and catchy, as it shows us that Hillsong UNITED is constantly evolving, and showing us more and more welcome surprises, even if the track does fall flat like “The Shape Of Your Heart”! Hillsong certainly aren’t slowing down any time soon, and though some fans may absolutely love this album, and other critics may bypass it due to it being a ‘Hillsong album’ and also as there are in fact many Hillsong albums releasing in a year; for me this particular record has me eagerly anticipating and excited for future Hillsong albums (all incarnations!) Well done to Taya, Jad, Joel, JD and Matt, this album is due for many more spins and rotations in my iTunes playlist!
4 songs to listen to: Shadow Step, Splinters And Stones, Greatest Of These, Not Today
RIYL: Planetshakers, Jesus Culture, Kari Jobe, Matt Maher, Chris Tomlin, Meredith Andrews