Aside from the fact that her career has spanned part or all of no less than five separate decades, the most notable aspect of Amy Grant's longstanding association with Christian music may well be the sheer variety of musical styles she's chosen to investigate over the course of its existence. Her 1978 self-titled debut and the handful of albums that followed in its immediate wake, for instance, were light pop/adult contemporary-leaning efforts reflective of the then-budding Inspirational Music genre. By the time of Straight Ahead in 1984, though, she began adding elements of rock to her characteristic pop sound; an approach that reached its culmination on 1985's Unguarded, which netted Grant her first mainstream chart success.
Against all prevailing expectations at the time, the follow-up record, Lead Me On, rather than merely replicating Unguarded, was a far more subdued, largely acoustic affair whose reflective, at times confessional, lyrics placed it in stark contrast to its upbeat predecessor. 1991's Heart in Motion and, to a slightly lesser degree, 1994's House of Love, traded in the sparse, reflective tones of Lead for buoyant romantically-themed material anchored to ingratiatingly catchy dance-pop beats. Grant followed these cheer-filled outings with yet another left turn, the somber, folk-infused Behind the Eyes, a project many fans consider to be her finest latter-day release.
Since the dawn of the new millennium, Grant has generated only one album of all-new material, the adult contemporary-inclined Simple Things, which hit the proverbial shelves in 2003. Despite the long stretch of time that has elapsed since then, much of her latest undertaking, How Mercy Looks from Here, follows closely in the footsteps laid out by its most recent predecessor. Ballads like "Better Not to Know," "Don't Try So Hard" and "Here" offer up soft, radio-ready tones sure to please those who took a liking to Simple Things' easygoing middle-of-the-road approach. "If I Could See" is a similarly agreeable mid-tempo piece lauding the importance of viewing life from the heavenly perspective.
And therein lies the most obvious rub with the new record. As pleasant as it is, a good bit of it comes and goes without making much of a lasting impression. In fact, it isn't until the fourth track, the contemporary country-inflected "Deep as It Is Wide," that Grant turns in her first truly compelling performance. Aided by Sheryl Crow and country singer Eric Paslay (who, it should be noted, shines the brightest on the cut), the standout song's survey of the vastness of God's love is, at once, solemn, meditative and celebratory.
This isn't to say that "Deep" is the album's lone shining moment. Just as Paslay spurred Grant on to vocal transcendence on that composition, alt-country/Americana performer Will Hoge does likewise on "Shovel in Hand," the stark, acoustic textures of which place the gripping number alongside Eyes' most memorable material. "How Mercy Looks from Here" is both beautiful and majestic - as good a modern-day hymn as Chris Tomlin or Twila Paris ever wrote. And the lilting closing track, "Greet the Day," which times in at barely over two and a half minutes, ends the proceedings on an encouragingly short, sweet and resolute note.
Grant's strongest suit continues to be her ability to convey the deepest and most personal of subjects in a way that the average listener can relate to. And that skill, like the abovementioned cuts, goes a long way toward offsetting Mercy's too-frequent musical lapses. The no-holds-barred lyrics of "Our Time Is Now" ("Time is an illusion/ Time is a curse") form a riveting counterpart to the song's distinctly winsome melody line. In the same way, the simple, straightforward wording of "Shovel in Hand" ("I watched my son/ Shovel in hand/ Nineteen years old and he's burying a friend/ Goodbye two boys, hello one man") actually functions, surprisingly enough, to heighten its underlying poignancy and depth. And the distinctly exhortational language of the engaging title track ("Open up your eyes, my dear/ That's when boundless grace appears/ Unseen angels hover near") seems a sure bet to please fans of Grant's more spiritually-themed output.
All said, How Mercy Looks From Here doesn't feature the consistently engrossing austerity of Lead Me On or Behind the Eyes, nor does it possess the airtight melodies and infectious rhythms that blessed Grant's earliest '90s offerings. Indeed, only "Deep As It Is Wide" and "Shovel in Hand" come close to matching her strongest works. That said, the fact that she's still making music some 35 years after her freshman record first saw the light of day is a solid testament to her near-singular tenacity, talent and enduring appeal. To be sure, a step in the right direction after the overly homogenous Simple Things, How Mercy Looks From Here offers proof of the most endearing kind that, even with so many milestones, heartaches and lessons learned behind her, the well of passion and insight that first inspired Grant to write down her deepest thoughts and share them with the world at large shows no sign of running dry any time soon.
- Preview and Review date: 4/25/13, written by Bert Gangl of Jesusfreakhideout.com