Newcomer Katy Nichole has amassed quite the incredible resume on the road to releasing Jesus Changed My Life, her debut album. She's been mentored by The Afters and Big Daddy Weave, she's shared the stage with Chris Tomlin, Jeremy Camp, and Matthew West, she's performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and last year, her debut single for Centricity Music amassed 20 million Spotify streams while achieving a record-breaking 20 weeks atop the Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart. Having already made such a massive splash within the industry, there's not much left that Katy Nichole needs to prove on this album, but thankfully, there's more to enjoy here than just one big hit.
The template is straightforward: belting choruses backed by choirs and a lush mixture of organic and electronic instrumentation, marked by massive stadium drums and gentle piano playing behind everything. The perfect representation of this template can be heard on the aforementioned mega-hit that opens the album, "In Jesus Name (God of Possible)," but over the course of the album (the first half in particular), the sound and style blends together, to the detriment of a front-to-back listening experience. Meanwhile, on the lyrical side, the album stays worship/praise-oriented for the majority of its runtime, with many songs sung directly to or about Jesus. And while this is mostly a good thing (especially the Jesus-centric focus of the album, as can be seen from the four songs with "Jesus" in the title), it leads to two issues: first, there are some thematic focus points that grow redundant by the album's end, such as all the mentions of "miracles"; and second, this makes "Things I Wish I Would've Said" stick out like a sore thumb as the album's only lyric about horizontal, human relationships. It would be great to hear more songs like this in the future, but as the only entry of its sort in this collection, it's an awkward outsider.
While many of the songs on Jesus Changed My Life can blend together, that doesn't mean they all fall short of "In Jesus Name," especially when they boast choruses as sticky sweet as the title track. These songs also tend to have fantastic, epic bridges, which is such a common weak spot in modern pop, with "God Is In This Story," "Living Proof," and "Please" standing out with memorably stirring bridges. And gluing all of this together are the vocals from Katy Nichole, who has a passionate, elastic voice that never seems to run out of range or new melodies throughout this set.
In the back half of the album, Katy occasionally branches out from expectations, for good and for ill. On the positive side is the dark and anthemic "Please," which plays with minor chords and rock elements more than anything else here, and the result is easily my favorite song on the album. Yet, in the same way that "Things I Wish I Would've Said" feels like a misfit lyrically, "Please" is a musical outlier, and the album would have benefited from more songs like this, that expand upon Katy's sound and show a greater emotional range. Elsewhere, there are two tracks, "By the Grace of God" and "Take It To the Cross," that lean heavily into a country sound, to the extent that Katy's voice has some twang in it. She pulls it off well -- I can imagine her as a successful country/Christian crossover artist -- but after hearing half of an album with zero country twang, it sounds more like a musical theater actress putting on the voice that best fits the role, rather than a self-assured artist with a consistent voice and style. And then the album ends with two songs in a row where, after proving repeatedly that Katy and her team have an ear for beautiful and dynamic bridges, what we get in place of a bridge is a verse of a public domain worship song (the over-used "Nothing But the Blood" on "Take It to the Cross" and "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus" on "Turn to Jesus"). Referencing and interpolating existing music can be cool, but twice in a row at the very end of the album just feels like a copout. The closing track also has a few moments where Katy's vocals sound like a dead ringer for the Louisiana-Cajun stylings of Lauren Daigle, which is strangely ironic when it seems like Centricity Music might have signed Katy in its search for a Daigle replacement (who is now co-signed to Atlantic).
The end result is a debut album that is inconsistent yet filled with potential, boasting a handful of strong highlights where well-written hooks are elevated by impressive vocal performances. As best as I can tell, Katy Nichole has a good head on her shoulders, matched by a heart that longs above all else to tell people about the goodness of Jesus. If future albums can strike a balance between a more consistent vocal style and more varied musical backdrops and lyrical topics, I think she'd create something truly special. For now, my hope is that the quickly achieved fame and notoriety won't get in the way of the purity of her message and her passion, and that future albums will see her grow beyond "In Jesus Name (God of Possible)" rather than trying to recreate its success.- Review date: 3/15/23, written by Chase Tremaine of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Centricity Music
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