In the six years since her debut album, Francesca Battistelli has found her voice. Once a young girl with a bright smile and big dreams, Battistelli has settled into her element, and it shows in her latest album, If We're Honest. An impressive theater background and years of hard work may have honed her skills, but the constant balancing act between a music career and life as a wife and mother makes her well equipped to examine how to follow Jesus in the middle of a busy life. If We're Honest delivers a focused batch of songs that are immediately accessible and likable, and more than a few of them have all the ingredients of a big radio single. However, a closer look shows that while they may address the audience better than ever, the effect is a record that may play things just a little too safe.
First of all, it's important to talk about that voice. Battistelli charmed critics and radio audiences early on with a vocal prowess beyond her years, and she's only matured and deepened since her debut. This shows right away in the opening track and lead radio single "Write Your Story." Of course, the Sara Bareilles comparisons that have been around since we first heard "I'm Letting Go" on the radio won't be going away anytime soon, but it's not a stretch to say she belts this chorus out with a touch of Katy Perry's bravado as well. Perhaps it's the combination of a big wall of pop sound with her grit and verve as she sings "Write your story, write your story on my heart." Whatever the reason, it makes for a strong single that shows she's back in a big way.
And that's the gist of the bulk of this album: big sounds, modern pop textures, and an energy that drives the record without drifting too far from the CCM middle. In the past, she often worked the soulful side of her voice and dabbled in laid back acoustic songs or elements of gospel, but this just might be her most pop-driven album yet. There are somber, slower moments toward the middle, with "Find Rest" providing a haunting, prayer-like quality in its quieter moments, and the title track, "If We're Honest," granting a moment of gentle, piano-driven rumination. But for the most part, the record stays upbeat and anthemic, from the driving first half to "We Are the Kingdom," an anthemic singalong that closes things out on a strong note.
If anyone understands the Christian music's classic listener, the all-too-busy mom looking for a little peace in her day, it's Francesca Battistielli. It's interesting to notice the parallels between some of these songs with her last record, Hundred More Years, her first release in the new phase of marriage and motherhood. Like "This is the Stuff" before it, "When the Crazy Kicks In" tells a story of stress and longing, capturing the cry of the harried 21st century woman "tiptoeing to the kitchen" praying "Lord, don't let the kids wake up" so she can get a moment of elusive quiet time (and maybe sneak a cup of coffee). "Hands of God" is like another angle of "Angel By Your Side," capturing the heart of holy friendship in a stirring power ballad. And of course, themes of finding security and worth in Christ are well-documented in "He Knows My Name" and the catchy pop tune "Unusual," a song boasting the album's most clever line: "Black and white's not in, you know / You're the zebra in the pony show." For better or worse, revisiting these ideas has solidified her message for the most basic concerns of her audience.
And yet, the album's greatest strength also becomes its weakness. Early on one of her most compelling traits, besides the charming way she fully owns her imperfections and all, was the way she could venture into something more than pop, experimenting with her more soulful tendencies. That slightly old fashioned groove shows up here and there, particularly in the bluesy verses of "Choose to Love" or the softness of "If We're Honest," but it isn't long before the sound snaps back to its polished ways. With retro styles permeating mainstream music these days, and Battistelli's immense vocal talent, it would be fun to hear just a little more experimentation, more of an attempt to introduce that vintage sound to CCM listeners. Some of the tracks on Hundred More Years and most of her 2012 Christmas album achieved this, so to revert to an almost exclusively radio-ready sound almost feels like a step backward.
It's worth mentioning that the deluxe edition of this record contains a few of her best songs. Lovers of worship music may enjoy her cover of Jesus Culture's "Holy Spirit," and "Keeping Score" is a playfully poppy tune about redemption with some delightful musical flourishes. But the autobiographical "I Am Home," which shows off the sorely missed bluesy side of her music, and the lovely lullaby "Tonight," written and performed with folk duo All Sons and Daughters, are so good their inclusion on the standard edition (and the exclusion of a couple of weaker tracks) just might have taken If We're Honest to a whole different level.
Those looking for a feel-good pop record to begin the road to summer could do far worse than picking up If We're Honest. It's poppy, friendly, and relatable, and a whole lot of fun to listen to. But here's hoping that future releases will let her take a few more risks and allow this talented artist to bring something honest and sonically fresh to the table.
- Review date: 4/20/14, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com