Style: Pop- and rock-infused gospel; compare to Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Richard Marx
Top tracks: "Wonder," "Take My Breath Away," "Rise"
In 1982, Michael W. Smith was just an underpaid songwriter who landed a gig playing keyboards for a young artist named Amy Grant. But over the next three decades, he went on to sell more than 13 million records, write hits like "Friends" and "Place in This World," found Rocketown Records, and take home three Grammy and 44 Dove Awards—ultimately helping mold the CCM industry into what it is today. Thousands of loyal fans can't get enough of their beloved songwriter, as evidenced by his album sales and well-attended concert tours.
The faithful will undoubtedly rush to purchase Wonder, his 22nd career album, which seeks to combine vintage Smitty with never-before-used technology. Smith and producer Bryan Lenox engaged a cutting-edge device called the CLASP system, designed to produce new sonic richness. That it does, to mixed effect. Smith's vocals sound the same, albeit a little more ragged, imbuing songs like "Run to You" and "Leave" with a vulnerable, live-acoustic feel. But towering arrangements often overpower Smith's cracked tenor, and the production feels artificial. Tender ballad "Forever Yours" gets lost in Disney-esque shimmering keyboard effects. When the gentle piano on "Take Me Over" builds to the sweeping grandiosity of a movie score, we'd just as soon be left with the simple chorus: "Jesus, Jesus, take me over now." And though Smith is attempting to step into the future, synthesizers and reverb contribute to a dated sound.
Still, there are standouts, to be sure. Anthemic "Wonder" features a tobyMac energy and contagious chorus. Worshipful tracks "Take My Breath Away" and "Rise" exemplify Smith's prowess as a worship leader. Another stellar moment is the gospel-tinged bridge on "I'll Wait for You."
Lyrically, Smith delves into his own spiritual life. On "Save Me from Myself," he reflects on how God is remaking him as a man. "Run to You" describes his broken dreams resulting from a desire to live life on his own. He also encourages listeners to trust God and keep going in a struggling economy and uncertain times. "I'll Wait for You" is particularly relevant: "Now I lie awake at night trying not to think / These are the hardest times I've ever seen / I'm still holding on." Two love songs, "Forever Yours" and "You Belong to Me," border on formulaic but proclaim sincere devotion to his wife, Debbie.
Though Smith's style won't attract younger generations, the lavish sounds of Wonder will likely satisfy his faithful following.
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