Would you believe me, would you listen if I told you that Grace Midtown’s Songs for the City is my favorite worship album of all time? More than anything Hillsong United, Chris Tomlin, Jesus Culture, or David Crowder have ever released? Now granted, I am biased: Grace Midtown is the church I attend. But on the other hand, I didn’t like this record very much when I first heard it four years ago. Over time, however, these songs have only become more and more powerful and beloved – a hallmark of a truly great album that endures when others, like impulsive crushes, wane over time.
Recorded at a creaky old church building near Georgia Tech, where Grace Midtown began, Songs For The City presents subtle lineup of stellar musicians: most notably Pat Barrett (guitars, lead vocals) and Ben Smith (keyboards, lead vocals) of Unhindered, along with other worship leaders like Reuben Bidez, Aaron Keyes, and Brett Stanfill. This old church building lends the record a much more intimate character than your average arena-recorded worship live album, along with the unusually quiet audience.
After an introduction by the lead pastor Matt Reynolds, You Are Good begins the album in a surprisingly subdued manner. It’s a beautiful song that’s hindered only by its long running time (which is not really good for starting an album) but it sounds so good that I’ll gladly let it slide. Desperate is an outstanding followup that organically kicks things into high gear, powered by its driving bass and Reuben’s heartfelt vocals. Bidez’s hyperkinetic Rain On Me is, without a doubt, the fastest worship song I’ve ever heard, and almost unsingable, but features great lyrics and instrumentation (the highlight being an awesomely cheesy keyboard solo by Ben Smith.)
Who Is Like The Lord is perhaps the album’s centerpiece, a beautiful rocker with outstanding lyrics and musicianship. Ben’s piano coda near the end of the song is probably the most beautiful moment of the whole record. The next few songs shift down to the quieter, longer sorts of compositions that tend to dominate worship albums, but when the songs are this good it’s easy to let it slide. Covered starts quietly and builds into a glorious, climactic bridge, leading into the intimate Beautiful. Breathe is Aaron Keyes’ main contribution, with its I Am Not The Same bridge constituting one of the most memorable moments of Midtown’s worship for many listeners.
But Grace saves the best for last. Aaron and Ben’s Jesus Loves Me is a beautiful rendition and expansion upon the original song, building from from a tender introduction into a massive climax – a serious candidate for the best song on the album. It leads into Generation, a powerful, desperate rocker with some great guitar playing, which might be overlooked because it’s a less catchy track. Take This City is a fist-pumping indie rock anthem with some more great musicianship. Lavish Your Love brings the album to an upbeat close – I really applaud Midtown’s choice to finish the record with a trio of upbeat songs rather than somber, repetitive fare that dominates the back end of most worship albums. Lavish Your Love drags on a few minutes too long, and the Unhindered version of the song is much better, but it’s still a classic.
Pretty much everything about Songs For The City flies in the face of the prevailing trends in worship music. It’s mostly upbeat, with few repetitive choruses, and only two or three very long songs. The electric guitar and bass have plenty of memorable contributions. Most conspicuously, there are no female vocals (unlike all of Midtown’s other releases.) The near-total lack of crowd noise and recording environment makes Songs For The City feel much more intimate than most albums of this type, and anyone who likes thoughtful worship music owes it to themselves to pick up this release – because it’s pretty unlikely that anybody is going to record an album like this ever again.