Audrey Assad's debut, an earthy, smart pop record with a songwriter's touch, was one of the most critically loved albums of 2010, but in her follow-up release Heart, everything special about her music is amplified into something even truer to the artist's heart and soul. Her sophomore release melds the simplicity and poetry of 70s singer-songwriters, classical piano moments, traditional hymns, and alternative pop, and ties it all together in a voice as lovely, complex, and passionate as the songs themselves.
Assad's roots run deep in the vintage sounds of classic songwriters and sacred music, and she's always seemed most at home with poetic writing and an elegant, stripped-down style. In its best moments, her debut The House You're Building highlighted those traits, but it also experimented with glossy, radio-friendly production at times, perhaps to give a new artist broader appeal. Thankfully, Heart keeps it honest, focusing less on a big, modern sound and more on Assad's lovely voice, piano work, and introspective lyrics.
That doesn't mean it all sounds alike however. In this case, less really does turn out to be more. By keeping it simple, she proves her great versatility. Sometimes, in songs like "The Way You Move," she channels the soulful vibe of a 70s songwriter. At others, she explores the reverence and passion of church music, and sometimes both happen in the same song. The arrangements and production stay sparse and sincere, though she isn't afraid to let loose a straight up cheerful pop song like "Won Me Over."
The somewhat unconventional title points to a recurring theme in her recent songwriting. Though her lyrics have always shown a great depth and wisdom, Heart delves even deeper into the many facets of faith and takes a special interest in themes of love and marriage. "Blessed Are the Ones" sets the record in motion with a mature and nuanced look at the newly-wed life. Musically, it couldn't be more joyful and soaring when she sings "Further up and further in / We have nowhere else to go," but the song itself focuses on the challenges and sacrifices ahead. This tension of optimism and uncertainty is a defining trait of the album, whether she's singing about marriage or faith. Even her re-imagined "Sparrow," a new arrangement of a beloved hymn, has a wistful tone beneath the confident declaration "I sing because I'm happy / I sing because I'm free."
Perhaps some of the most beautiful moments are found in the more reverent side, particularly "O My Soul." The hymn-like melody and sparse arrangement, mostly Assad's singing and piano, are all this song needs to take flight. It begins hushed and subdued, then builds to a stunning finish. In a similar way, "Lament" takes a melancholy turn, expressing the longing under the surface of the whole album. "I'm Mary and I'm Martha all at the same time / I'm sitting at his feet and yet I'm dying to be recognized." If that restless feeling is the surrounding theme, then "Slow" perhaps sums it up best. A passionate, fiery faith is often celebrated in Christian culture, but here she offers a realistic yet hopeful alternative: "Faith is not a fire as much as it's a glow / A steady, humble lamplight in the window." In the end, a quiet faith in God, or even a gently growing love for another, is "just enough to get me home," and that hope is the heartbeat of these songs.
It's always a joy to hear a promising artist find a voice and make a record that sounds true; Heart is just that. Classy, poetic, honest, and thoughtful, it sounds like the music Audrey Assad was made to create and the album her fans have been waiting for, one that grows more beautiful with every listen.- PReview date: 1/26/12, Review date: 2/12/12, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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