Stone Table Records
Release Date: August 21st 2015
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- Let Down Your Guard
- The Well
- Fully Known
- Meant to Be
- Father Daughter Dance (feat. Matt Hammitt)
- This Year (Happy New Year)
- Holy Ground
- Scarlet Thread
- Sound of a Living Heart
‘…I’m a recovering perfectionist, but I’m learning to press into the discomfort and messiness of life. I know I’m going to make mistakes and experience pain, but God is always there to put the pieces back together…’ JJ Heller, possibly the most unique, musically diverse and poignant female indie artist I’ve come across over the last few years, is now back with a new album after her successful 2013 album Loved and her lullaby album I Dream of You in 2014. Famous for songs like “Control”, “Who You Are”, “Boat Song” and “What Love Really Means”; Jennifer Judy (JJ for short) Heller continues to deliver acoustically driven pop with a heartfelt message as Sound of a Living Heart builds upon the themes surrounding Loved and reminds us all of the beating heart inside of us and the sound it makes when we’re living full lives for Christ and for the people around us we hold dear. With her albums being critically and powerfully loved and accepted by fans and reviewers alike, JJ has departed from her detour sound of lullaby for her 2014 album I Dream of You and travels back to the sound we have all grown to love- acoustic pop. JJ has been able to craft 11 songs full of life and vitality as acoustic guitars and a powerful vocal from JJ is a reminder that a great song can still be choreographed without strong driving electric guitars and electronic keyboards flooding through the track. From the hard hitting first track “Let Down Your Guard” encouraging us to let down our guards as we unveil our true selves to people around us, to the first single “Fully Known” encouraging us that God knows us fully even if we don’t; Sound of a Living Heart is a welcomed addition to my iTunes playlist, and a perfect album to listen to if you have been a fan of JJ’s previous material, or if you enjoy artists like Audrey Assad, Sara Groves or Brooke Fraser.
Releasing a music video of the song in early August, “Let Down Your Guard” is as catchy as it is meaningful. With a collection of snare drum kicks, light reverbing keyboard sounds, and a whistle, JJ offers us a remedy to difficult situations- letting down our guards and revealing the truth self of us, even if that version isn’t as nice or neat as what we portray on the outside. As we hear more and more of the track, JJ gives us an invitation, from God’s point of view, to ‘…let down your guard, I will always love you…’ While we know in our heads that God loves us unconditionally, life gets in the way and we sometimes overlook that truth, which is why this melody is a great reminder for us to continuously believe that fact about ourselves and God. “This Year (Happy New Year)”, another promotional single, presents the acoustic guitar front and centre in this poetic and heartfelt melody about moving forward and living without regrets as the years roll on. Whatever last year was shouldn’t define what this year is going to be, and JJ offers us a moment of realisation in this track, hopefully being life-affirming and identity-redefining to many who listen.
“Fully Known”, a piano track full of sunny moments of belief and restoration as we are fully known by our family, friends and God Himself, it is the lyrics of the chorus alone, that ‘…you are fully known by the Author of space and time, He won’t let you go and you cannot change His mind…’, that will hopefully encourage us to embrace God knowing ourselves inside and out, and being free and at peace with the all-knowing God having our best interests at heart. “Meant to Be”, another promotional single from the album, speaks about love between a man and a woman, and that ‘…when God made you, He already knew that we were meant to be…’ Accompanied by a nice little animated music video about squirrels, we are able to watch and see that the love shown between the two characters in the video is just a spec compared to how much God loves His creation.
“Father Daughter Dance”, the last remaining promotional single from the album, is arguably the most heartfelt, emotional song JJ has ever sung and written. A duet with ex-Sanctus Real frontman Matt Hammitt, this is a story song, about father daughter dances as a way of connecting fathers to their daughters, and one such young woman whose father was in prison and the journey she was on in relation to that. Compelling and life changing, I won’t spoil the message of the song, but hear that if there’s only one song to be heard on this album, “Father Daughter Dance” is the one! Kudos to both JJ and Matt for such powerful harmonies, as this song is presented as one of the standouts on Sound of a Living Heart.
Throughout the rest of the album, JJ employs various musical techniques to change things up and keep the listener interested. Stylistic changes in an artist’s genre can lead to the end product working well or being botched up, in JJ’s case, her unique differing music styles throughout the album comes off pretty well. “The Well” is a gospel-tinged melody complete with a gospel choir and light electric guitars to emphasise the genre of music that is prominent in the American South; and presents a theme of God being the well that never runs dry, while “Holy Ground” is a prayer for anyone on the verge of fighting, that we will be standing on holy ground when ‘…we lay our weapons down, when we speak the truth out loud, when we’re slow to judge and quick to love…’ A song about unity rather than divisiveness; JJ relays that ‘…you’re not the enemy…love is the medicine…’; a timely reminder that God, who is love defined, is our medicine in every relationship we are in.
“Daylight” presents a theme of hunger for the Lord and that whatever we fill ourselves with isn’t going to last, that ‘…food and water are only buying time, if I want to live, Your love is all I need…’ Vocally sounding like Sara Groves in some parts in this melody, with just the piano JJ presents vulnerability, as we are compelled to declare alongside JJ that God is our daylight we need, both for now and eternity. “Scarlet Thread”, “Silence” and the title track round out the album, each of the tracks presenting a different theme (each very necessary to hear), with “Scarlet Thread” presenting to us that even though our tapestry of a life is a mess, God intentionally weaves together the moments of our lives to create a scarlet thread, something beautiful for us to marvel at and be proud of.
“Silence” is an encouragement to the person who is hurting, that our friends and family will be there, sitting in silence as they comfort us, not with their words but with their presence; while “Sound of a Living Heart”, indeed a very fitting track 11, is an anthem for the masses, reminding us that the sound of being living and to feel, is to feel hurt, rejection, pain and emotion, coupled with the highs of euphoria, passion, enthusiasm, joy and love. We can’t experience the highs and appreciate them without knowing what it is to be in the lowest of lows. This is what the album is about- embracing what it brings, knowing full well that God uses each moment to shape our character as we become more and more like Him. A song to hopefully leave a lasting impact when the album finishes, JJ has done a great job as a church choir is employed in what could only be described a song sounding heavenly, but also having real world applications.
‘…I could hide myself away, somewhere safe, far from pain, but if I refuse to feel, I’ll never bleed, but I’ll never heal, I hear Jesus calling me, out of the grave I’ve been sleeping in, with new lungs I’ll begin again, lift my voice and sing my part, this is the sound of a living heart…’ These are the lyrics to the title tracks, and encompass what it means to be alive, to have our hearts beating, what these songs by JJ represent. As she delivers arguably one of the most vulnerable performances throughout the album, out of her whole career; this is an album not to be missed by anyone- it doesn’t matter if you enjoy hardcore, screamo, pop, worship, rock or even acoustic or folk; but JJ Heller, and the honesty and realness she writes her songs with, is an artist certain to be enjoyed no matter your genre preference. It’s a bold claim but I stand by this: Sound of a Living Heart is my favourite JJ Heller album ever, and it’s one of my favourite albums of the year, easily in the top 10 for me! From “Fully Known” to the heartfelt duet of “Father Daughter Dance” to the powerful title track, JJ’s best years of songwriting and singing are sure to be ahead of her. Well done for a well written album, one of the best to be released in August 2015!
3 song to listen to: Fully Known, Sound of a Living Heart, The Well
RIYL: Audrey Assad, Sara Groves, Brooke Fraser, Amy Grant, Jason Castro