It is always simplistic to place labels on cultural movements, but the current state of our country and our world can perhaps best be described as both polarized and precarious. The uncertainty that we live in can be paralyzing, and we Christians may have the tendency to feel that the good deeds we try to accomplish are fruitless. Additionally, most of the worship music scene that envelops radio stations seems content with pushing the status quo rather than finding creative ways to lift our spirits in praise. Even so, there are always a faithful few who take up the mantle of imaginative adoration. Helmed by Isaac Wardell, the worship collective known as The Porter's Gate has released Work Songs: The Porter's Gate Worship Project Vol. 1 in an utterly timely fashion. This assembly of original hymns, tended by some of worship's finest voices, should become one of the essential records of contemporary Christianity.
Attempting to write modern hymns that are both theologically appropriate and socially relevant sounds daunting, but Wardell certainly gathered the proper personnel for such a task. David Gungor, Madison Cunningham, Audrey Assad, Josh Garrels, Joy Ike, and plenty more have come together as a beautiful picture of the church: united, yet not uniform. Each artist is able to imprint their own unique style while also collaborating with others on songs that are not their own. This decision cements the collective aspect of the release, and it also allows for some of the most beautiful vocal performances I have ever heard. In particular, Cunningham on "Little Things With Great Love," Ike on "Day By Day," and Assad and Paul Zach on "In the Fields of the Lord" are powerhouse deliveries that undeniably invoke a sense of reverence for the Creator.
Aside from the astounding level of talent, the sound of these modern hymns is impeccable and vast. As a purely live album, it sounds absolutely pristine and rests in the strength of its dynamics and constant pull between the vocals and the instruments. This ebb and flow is present in the variety of styles, as the album travels from the Renaissance to blues, gospel, folk, and even the tasteful side of CCM seamlessly. Despite this diversity in genre, the instrumentation mainly centers around driving pianos, warm acoustic guitars, and minimalistic percussion. That may seem simplistic, but occasional layers such as the organ on "Christ Has No Body Now But Yours" and the vivacious choir on "Father, Let Your Kingdom Come" provide listeners with something different to focus on each time. Oftentimes the lush space of the chapel recording space speaks musical volumes in and of itself.
In light of the musical excellence that occurs on Work Songs, one could easily overlook the lyrics, but the persistently poetic contemplation is what places this record head and shoulders above other worship releases this year. As indicated by the title, this album dwells on the importance of vocation in the Christian life, and it does so from seemingly every aspect. "Little Things With Great Love" commences with the declaration that "In the garden of our Savior/No flower grows unseen." The idea that Jesus notices the little things in us, and will fulfill His mission through us, is the lifeblood of these songs. The systematic approach is essential to the order of the tracklist as well. From a plea for mercy for us and through us to focusing on God as the foundation of our work and His ability to make our offerings something even greater, it is clear that these songs want us to know that our work as Christians is meaningful.
I could easily point to the subtle nuances that make this album exceptional: the swelling utilization of strings, the elegant duets, the tasteful chromaticism within many of the chord progressions. But what makes Work Songs truly great is not necessarily in the details, but in the grand movement that it seems bent on inspiring. Its ecumenical nature fosters Christian unity and avoids theological disagreeance. It is empowering and transformative. Most of all, The Porter's Gate have accomplished what most worship albums have failed to do, for Work Songs is a project that moves us to go and do. If we are called to judge a tree by its fruit, then I have a feeling that the labor put into this one will bear something truly sweet in due time.
- Review date: 10/4/17, written by Mason Haynie of Jesusfreakhideout.com