Release Date: September 25th 2020
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Blank Page
- Don’t Break The Mirror
- Highlights (feat. Nobes)
- You Can’t Stop Me (feat. Fleurie)
- Where Did That Dreamer Go?
- Great Big World
Sanctus Real is probably one of today’s most prolific and inspiring CCM bands ever. Starting out as a rock band, and then slowly transitioning into pop/rock and more adult contemporary as the years went on, but still containing the signature Sanctus Real sound; just one glance at their singles, and you’d know that they’re a band that’s special. Heartfelt and impacting songs like “We Need Each Other”, “Pray”, “Promises”, “The Redeemer”, “Don’t Give Up”, “I’m Not Alright”, “Everything About You”, “The Face Of Love”, “Say It Loud”, “Lay It Down” and “Lead Me” are many of the singles that have propelled these humble men of God to stardom, and have further cemented their place amongst some of the greatest CCM bands currently today. So it definitely was a shock, for me at least, when Matt Hammitt, the lead singer of the band, stepped down from the band in 2015. In 2017, Matt unveiled his debut solo album- the self titled Matt Hammitt; and while just this past week Matt released his sophomore album Treetop, for those who don’t know the story of Matt and why he ‘went solo’, let me quote you a few paragraphs of my review of Matt’s album from 2017… because who better to speak about Matt’s backstory in prep and context for this review of Treetop, then myself from 3 years ago- who said it more eloquently than I probably could ever had I tried to succinctly say the same thing?
If you do not know the story of Matt Hammitt and how he stepped down from being the frontman of Sanctus Real, then let me give you a quick history lesson. Because this new album, this self-titled album from Matt, that released just last week, is so deserving of a review. But I can’t review this album without giving you some context first. Matt Hammitt by Matt Hammitt is so much more than a new solo album. I don’t want you to think that Matt left Sanctus Real to become a solo artist. Because he didn’t. He left for a multitude of reasons, and releasing a solo album was borne out of the experiences that he has had since then. So let me tell you all a story.
Though I don’t claim to know everything Sanctus Real, I do know a bit. And here’s what I do know. Out of his four children, son Bowen was the sickest. Born in 2010, he was in and out of hospital. Breathing tubes, having a life-threatening heart defect…both Matt and Sarah had to trust God for their every provision, in the promise that Bowen would live. Since then, it’s been a bumpy ride and though Bowen is alive right now, I guess you’d say that was that moment when something restless stirred inside of Matt. Bowen’s immediate peril and sickness led to the release of the extremely personal Every Falling Tear in 2011, which was when I knew that if ever Matt went solo, he’d still be respected and successful (as Every Falling Tear was very honest, poignant, emotional, and probably one of the most impacting and encouraging albums of that year, as well as the most confronting!)
Having already penned the smash hit “Lead Me” in 2010, I guess you could say that song gradually grew in significance as the years went on. Lyrically the song shows Matt imagining his wife saying to him to ‘…lead me with strong hands, stand up when I can’t, don’t leave me hungry for love, chasing dreams, but what about us, show me you’re willing to fight, that I’m still the love of your life, I know we call this our home but I still feel alone…’, and that’s a powerful declaration. It’s probably what Sarah was feeling for quite a while when Matt was on the road on tour with the band. That he was spending time making a living, so much so that he was neglecting life at home with her and the kids. Overall, I guess the reason why “Lead Me” was written and why it resonated so much with listeners, and also why it impacts even now; is that it’s a reminder to us all to not let the important things in life and the important moments pass us by, all because we think that what we’re doing now matters the most. Like getting the perfect car, the perfect job, the perfect house matters in the end. It doesn’t. Apart from our relationship with Jesus, the things that matter are the relationships with those we forge around us. Without people who love us, who are we? If we’re alone, then what good are material possessions?
Those were the things eating at Matt’s mind, and perhaps hearing the words sung from the audience of “Lead Me”, so enthusiastically and passionately, every night on tour, maybe became too much for him to bear. There obviously was something brewing in him, so in hindsight, it probably was expected that he’d leave the band at some point if you knew his story and everything he was feeling. So in 2015, Matt left. It wasn’t to pursue a solo career. If it was only that, I’d probably lose respect for him. But, it was so much more. Matt and Sarah both launched a podcast called The Lead Me Lifecast in 2016, and also unveiled “LEAD ME LIVE” conferences and events, where he speaks about building up men, marriages and families, and speaks into people’s lives about what God is doing in order for men to become the best father, husband, son and person they can be. Sort of like life coaching, but also sort of like speaking like Louie Giglio, if you want to put it into lamens terms. He’s also a partner with Family Life Ministries, and a speaker for their “Weekend To Remember” marriage retreats. So there was a lot of things happening long before Full Circle Music came knocking. Before God started opening doors.
When the newly formed record label, headed by Seth Mosley, signed Matt as a songwriter and a solo artist in 2016, and in early 2017, the debut single “Tears” was released; it was a chance for Matt to put all that he has been feeling over the past few years, thoughts about leaving the band, to the feelings from actually leaving the band, to his worries about his son Bowen, all to paper. And the result is an album that is truly remarkable, and a testimony that God is working in our lives, even when we don’t see it. To mistake Matt as just another solo artist is a dangerous thing, and this album is proof of God’s faithfulness, and of the fact that Matt is a multi-layered person, with a lot of things to say. But if you’re asking why couldn’t Matt say what he needed to and still be part of Sanctus Real, then I guess I would say that Matt would still be restless, and needing time out, and his songs (had he stayed with Sanctus Real) wouldn’t have felt authentic. He’d be phoning it in, and nobody wants that, right? Anyway, enough preamble, let’s quickly gloss over these tracks, because frankly, you all need to listen to these songs rather then read me yak on about them!
If you are transfixed by this introduction and want to read more about Matt Hammitt, then by all means, have a read. But if you’re curious as to how Treetop sounds like… well you’ve come to the right place! And what better way to start the album than with the lyrical heartbeat of this entire collection of songs? The opening track is the title track, and Matt opens proceedings with gusto and intense passion. As Matt eloquently relays across somewhat musically cliché radio pop sounding guitars to us a story of someone with regrets longing to reach the highest of heights and their glory days again; we are met with the story of someone with regrets and someone believing they had untapped potential and weren’t living to the full. However, Matt encourages us that if we trust God and let Him lead, He can recapture the spark we used to have for life, and He can and will guide us to where we want to be. As Matt cries out in the chorus that ‘…oh, nobody said it’d be easy. nobody said it’d come freely, nobody said it’d be perfect, but it’s worth it, oh, love will never be harmless, sometimes it feels a bit heartless, some days it’s gonna feel hopeless, but know this- when you’re lost, look up, He’ll lead you back…’; we are met with a promise, a declaration that we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt is true- that God has our backs all the time, and that when we ask, He’ll comfort, heal, and deliver on His word. It may not be how we initially envision our life would go, but when we pray, God will come through. That’s a promise you can count on.
After the encouragement that is the title track, the rest of Treetop encourages us in a similar vein. Not explicitly singing about Jesus, however nonetheless singing about life through a Christian lens. “Average” is an EDM prominent track that speaks about the doubts we all have as believers, or even as humans- are we destined for a life of greatness, popularity and immense influence, or are we just average? It’s the great dichotomy that we as humans face each day, and one of the very aspects of life we wrestle with probably daily. However how we define success is very different from person to person, so when Matt relays in “Average” that despite our successes or failures, if we have people in our lives that love us and support us, does it really matter if we are ‘average’ or not? Food for thought, don’t you think?
“Blank Page” melodically sounds like We Need Each Other or The Face Of Love era style Sanctus Real, as Matt explosively recounts how we longs for life to be less complicated, back when life was like a ‘blank page’, yet comes to the profound conclusion at the end of the song that the blank page of life he was living wasn’t his to live at all- but rather we are living in God’s story and we are just moving pieces for His glory and our good. It’s a tough concept to wrap your head around but once we realise that God’s plan is way, way bigger than ours, then we can be comforted even in the deepest of trials and tribulations. “Try”, the lead single, is next; and is a 3 minute tune whereby Matt eloquently points out to us that we can indeed voice our frustrations and our grievances to God, that we can indeed ‘…lift up your voice to the sky, just scream it out asking Him why, nothing can shake Him, nothing can break Him, go ahead try…’. While the midpoint of the album lies in the nihilistic and existential slow ballad “Shell”, a track of laments and what-ifs, led by the keys, where Matt prayerfully acknowledges that he isn’t like other kids in the school yard and he doesn’t have the flair and the confidence of other people he envies; and the lyrically confronting musically 80’s themed “Don’t Break The Mirror”, sung from God’s perspective, and with God asking each of us whether we really love Him, because ‘…if you don’t know love itself, how can you love anyone else…’.
A couple of the more heartfelt and personal tracks on Treetop are next, as “Highlights” and “You Can’t Stop Me” features guitarist Nobes and EDM vocalist Fleurie respectively. “Highlights” dives deep into longing to live a life of authenticity, realness and honesty, rather than just showing those around us the ‘highlights’ of our life like a trailer from a movie- similar in theme to Matthew West’s “The Motions”; while “You Can’t Stop Me” is a slow piano led compelling and haunting ballad sung from two perspectives- from God’s in the first verse and from a friend’s in the second verse- reminding someone with low self-esteem and someone who does indeed believe they are worthless, that they are in fact lovable and that ‘…you won’t let anyone love you, but you can’t stop me…’.
The 1 minute interlude “Where did That Dreamer Go” speaks about each one of us, asking the question about when did we as people become so cynical and jaded from life’s experiences, highlighting to us ‘…look at where you are now, it hurts to see you burnt out, you used to be a star, but you lost your glow…’, and later on asking us ‘…don’t you think it’s time, to step into the light and reignite?…’. Treetop then ends with the jovial, celebratory, optimistic and poppy “Great Big World”, the perfect way to end an introspective yet comforting album. As Matt sings across cinematic sounds and a potential soundtrack atmosphere, relaying to us that this world is magical and amazing, and that we can indeed feel alive and feel like we’re living a life full of wonder and full of appreciation and satisfaction; “Great Big World” challenges us to go out of our comfort zone and see what God has in store for each one of us, and to see what life has to offer.
Treetop isn’t perfect, not by any means. These songs sound eerily similar to the Sanctus Real or the late 2000’s- though they are indeed still poignant, and worth a few listens, as we are reminded that God isn’t done with Matt Hammitt just yet, in terms of music, and in terms of everything else- the podcasts and the conferences and events he is a part of. Though I may not know what Matt will do in the future, Treetop is one of the most hopeful and encouraging albums I have heard over the past few months- and doesn’t contain a song that I want to skip. So take a listen, everyone! What more can I say to encourage you to listen to this underrated project, especially when we are in quarantine and itching to hear new music from any artist? Well done Matt for such a poetic and powerful new album, praying that God blesses you heaps in the future!
3 songs to listen to: Blank Page, You Can’t Stop Me, Great Big World
RIYL: Sanctus Real, Tenth Avenue North, Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Matthew West