Abide With Me is an album filled with history, yet surprisingly future-oriented. This live album was recorded in a church that's about a century old, comprised of hymns that are predominantly the same age. The release of Abide With Me also coincides with Sara Groves' twentieth anniversary of professionally making music. Appropriately, the capstone of this record is a new version of "He's Always Been Faithful," a song that originally appeared on Groves' record label debut and which Groves estimates to have performed upwards of 1,500 times in the years since. That trademark song is a remake, so to speak, of "Great is Thy Faithfulness," but with lyrics that look ahead to God's future faithfulness instead of behind. There's a beautiful connection between this meeting of past and future within the church where the album was recorded, which is shown on the album cover while being built. That building has since been transformed into Art House North, a "creative community for the common good" which was intimately involved with the making of this breathtaking hymns collection.
The new version of "He's Always Been Faithful" is the best thing about this album, a must-have for any fan of Sara Groves. Yet I found, in my experience with this album, that the preceding ten hymns grow increasingly more beautiful and effectual, leading up musically, spiritually, and emotionally to that closing number, all coalescing together to give "Faithful" its power. That being said, I find the first few tracks to be lackluster (specifically, everything leading up to the wonderful title track). Those introductory hymns are, simply enough, boring. The arrangements are nothing special, but I think most of the blame goes to Groves' vocal performances. On "Fairest Lord Jesus" and "Praise to the Lord," she sounds dull, as if she doesn't believe what she's singing; I do believe she does, of course, but it doesn't come across that way. Those vocal takes lack a passion that she later displays on "The Love of God" and "Tis So Sweet." (The latter also benefits greatly from tight three-piece harmonies and a stellar mandolin solo, the record's only moment where the music takes the forefront.) She has never been a bravura performer, but she's always been a tasteful singer. However, most of her fans probably listen to her music first and foremost for her lyrics -- which would give us little reason to hear her sing cover songs if she didn't bring anything fresh to the table. Thankfully, she does.
The best moments of those openings tracks are when Groves' voice is joined by the choir. As mentioned earlier, "community" was a driving force to the making of this record, and this theme affected the sound, as well. The "choir" appearing on Abide With Me is a group of friends and community members from Art House North whose performances were recorded and mixed to sound like they're singing from behind you, within the audience, rather than being up front on stage. This effect works perfectly, immersing you in the atmosphere of a church body, and each time the choir appears is hauntingly beautiful. The midway point on the album, "Song of Blessing," is a short, one-minute verse where the choir sings the whole way through, making for an extra special treat.
"To The Dawn" and "Lead On Oh King Eternal" are two fantastic sets of lyrics that might be unfamiliar to most listeners (myself included), given new arrangements that shine. "What a Friend," with its muted drums, is another standout, emphasizing one of the record's greatest themes: the friendship of God. It's easy to think of Jesus as our friend -- which is surely an incredible truth! -- but we too easily forget that, through Jesus, we get to have an intimate friendship with the entire triune God. This is but one of the many convicting and comforting truths given focus by Groves, the musicians, her collaborators, and her husband Troy, who came up with the idea of a hymns album fifteen years ago and had been compiling a list of potential songs to use ever since.
Again, it's hard to compare Abide With Me to the rest of Groves' discography because we'd be comparing an album where she wrote close to none of the lyrics to the work of one of Christian music's finest lyricists. Thankfully, this album is also a completely different project than anything she's done before, a worshipful and encouraging accomplishment that all of her fans will want to pick up while we await a proper follow-up to Floodplain (which, for the record, has become one of my favorite albums of all time). Here's to another twenty years!
- Review date: 11/16/17, written by Chase Tremaine of Jesusfreakhideout.com