JJ Heller's latest is called Sound of a Living Heart, and to put it simply, the sound is excellent. Continuing the arc established by 2013's Loved, Heller has established a confident, modern musical platform that allows her room to explore new sounds while seamlessly integrating the quiet piano ballads that have always been her forte. Producer Jonny Macintosh (Third Day) takes the reins this time around, and the music that has resulted reminds us of Heller's versatility and her ability to speak wisdom and encouragement into listeners' hearts through bright, accessible songs.
Many of the songs on Sound are the product of a trying season in Heller's life, and as is so often true, painful periods often produce the most profound statements of faith. A particularly powerful example is "This Year (Happy New Year)". It's a wonderful "proclamation song" meant for anyone determined to take lessons learned from a hard time, grow as a person, and move on. The song would fit in nicely on Eric Peters' seminal Birds of Relocation album. Plus, it has an instrumental harmonica break, and what's not to love about an instrumental harmonica break?
In a similar thematic vein, "Daylight" is a soft, reflective piano throwback, as good as anything you'll hear in CCM. The title comes from a thought-provoking image in the lyric: "There is an inch of daylight underneath the door / It's enough to fill up my canteen."
There are moments on the album when the sentiment strays near maudlin. One sappy love song, "Meant To Be," is made more palatable by the playful music. The doubly sappy "Father-Daughter Dance" is saved by the lovely piano waltz, and it highlights a great vocal pairing with Matt Hammitt.
The music is excellent throughout, with only a few questionable moments. The percussion is overwrought on "Meant to Be," but it drives "Holy Ground" to a new level. Heller's vocal is a highlight: bright, evocative, and appropriately emotional.
Rather than settling into a comfortable acoustic-pop mold, Heller continues to push herself lyrically and musically. She's an important voice, and Sound of a Living Heart is an encouraging sign of a continued upward trajectory.
- Review date: 8/18/15, written by Mark D. Geil of Jesusfreakhideout.com