Sounds like … similar to previous entries in the acclaimed series-worshipful acoustic pop with alternative touches, featuring Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, Bebo Norman, and several others
At a glance … though weaker in many ways than the previous efforts, The Gathering still stands as an outstanding album that offers thought-provoking worship and sophisticated acoustic pop sounds
With three albums in as many years, the highly acclaimed and undeniably popular City on a Hill series has left a lasting mark on Christian music, generating one of the most enduring modern worship songs ("God of Wonders") and selling a combined total of more than 700,000 units. With the fourth and final edition, City on a Hill: The Gathering, producer Steve Hindalong has drawn things to a close.
The City on a Hill series is unique in its community-inspired collaborations of worship between prominent Christian musicians. With the exception of Third Day, the long-time participants are back for round four: Jars of Clay, Caedmon's Call, FFH, Sixpence None the Richer, The Choir's Derri Daugherty, and Glassbyrd (which was involved behind the scenes the whole time). The Gathering also features returnees Sara Groves, Bebo Norman, and Paul Colman Trio, plus City on a Hill newcomers Andrew Peterson, Ginny Owens, and acoustic-pop band Silers Bald. Hindalong is again joined by fellow producers Daugherty and Marc Byrd of Glassbyrd.
With all the returning creative forces, The Gathering retains many of the characteristics that made previous efforts so endearing: impressive duets, sophisticated acoustic-pop arrangements, and a reverence for ancient church tradition blended with modern worship. I've always loved how one album seems to inspire the next. Ignoring the slight detour of 2002's Christmas album, The Gathering picks up where Sing Alleluia left off—with the sound of birds and bells, juxtaposed over a running stream.
Unfortunately, there are indications that the series has run out of ideas. Like the previous albums (except the Christmas one), "Marvelous Light" is featured on The Gathering; it might be viewed as a recurring theme, but it lacks punch this time. There's also the decision by Hindalong and Daugherty to once again resurrect "Beautiful Scandalous Night" for the second or third time in their career—though not on previous City on a Hill projects. Although it's sung beautifully by Leigh Nash (Sixpence) and Bebo Norman, it feels like the song's been done too often, as if it were an admission that the producers can offer no better. Then there's the multi-artist title track and first single, sort of a Christian folk/pop "We Are the World" that almost sounds too forced: "Sisters, brothers/We've got to learn to love each other/Our Father in Heaven has called us to be instruments of peace."
But there are far better collaborations on the album. Offering tremendous ambience and a toy box of percussion instruments, "Jesus Went to the Garden" features powerful vocal performances that jell together rather than merely singing verses in turn. The same is true of the excellent and energetic musical prayer "Instrument of Peace," which teams the Paul Colman Trio with members of Glassbyrd, The Choir, and Jars of Clay. The acoustic rocker "Table of the Lord" benefits from a simple, memorable melody, as well as strong orchestration underlying FFH with Paul Colman.
While the series has yet to produce another worship song as good as "God of Wonders," some of these come close. Jars of Clay offers a brief-yet-effective performance of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," which leads into a pretty invocation by Sara Groves, "Come Be Who You Are." Christine Glass (Glassbyrd) gives a breathy duet with Ginny Owens in a simple worship song, "We Will Trust You," and Owens is featured again in the gently prayerful "Open Our Eyes Dear Savior."
There's no shortage of talent or quality performances, so it's hard to dislike much about The Gathering. While there's nothing wrong with the songs themselves, the album isn't imaginative or cohesive. The title track states the intended theme of loving others as God has loved us. From there it goes into the crucifixion of "Beautiful Scandalous Night," then "Jesus Went to the Garden" (covering Gethsemane through the Resurrection), followed by the communion anthem "Table of the Lord." Then comes Andrew Peterson's "Holy Is the Lord"—a fabulous song about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, but it feels somewhat out of place here.
The album may lack thematic vision and originality, but like a good sequel, The Gathering leaves true creativity to its predecessors and generally gives listeners what they want. It closes quietly with the sound of running water and a distant thunderstorm, signaling the last you'll hear from this terrific series (that is, until the inevitable four-disc boxed set). My hope is that The Gathering, along with the other albums in the pioneering series, will inspire other Christian artists to be just as creative and collaborative in art and worship.