As we all know, contemporary Christian worship music is a very tricky proposition. Forget indie rock with all its cooler-than-thou do’s and don’ts, forget pop with its lowest-common-denominator pressures, etc – there is no genre that is more difficult (impossible?) to do well than contemporary Christian worship. I’m not talking about modern hymnody, which is another matter altogether. I’m talking about worship/praise music.
For starters, writing a worship lyric that is both emotionally and theologically engaging is no easy task. The horizontal “me-centered” stuff tends to put words in the mouths of unsuspecting worshippers, making assertions and promises that in practice border on dishonesty or even absurdity. On the other hand, more vertically, God-oriented songs tend to over-correct, frequently veering into teachy, dry and super abstract territory. In both cases, the melodies are equally difficult to pull off. If it’s too complicated (or fast), no one can sing it. But if it’s too simple, the hokey campfire factor becomes unbearable. And let’s face it – even if a song makes it past those two hurdles, it rarely survives the recording process without the edge getting shaved off. So we are always on the lookout for something good, and we are always delighted when we find it!
The Magills and The Kings County Sound is such a record. By no means a full-on “worship” album, it incorporates that approach more successfully than anything in recent memory (High Street Hymns doesn’t count – a better touchstone might be Thad Cockrell’s excellent To Be Loved EP). The songs strike that rare tone of good testimony, witnessing clearly to God’s grace/power while remaining deeply rooted in personal experience and feeling, without ever falling into singer-songwriter exhibitionism or prescriptive can-do back-patting. With their second full-length, Oklahoma-by-way-of-Texas-by-way-of-NYC duo The Magills have delivered a country-rock gospel record that feels both authentic and worshipful.
The songwriting is uniformly pretty top-notch. “The Peace”, an early stunner, is a breathless example of Matt Magill’s effortless melodicism: a first-person verse colliding with a second-Person chorus that will stay in your head for days. The duet “Rescue” is another highlight – smart, earnest lyrics married to a lilting country shuffle (probably the closest they get to traditional country), interrupted by an inspired guitar solo. Of the out-and-out worship songs, “Here Is The Son” is particularly fine, hitting the horizontal-vertical balance perfectly. And the one foray into original hymnody, the gorgeous “What No Man Can Do”, suggests a potentially very fruitful future direction.
The vocals on the record deserve much, um, praise. Megan Magill provides expert bluegrass harmonies to her husband’s leads throughout, getting a breath-taking showcase on “Receiving You”. Together they have the sort of well-worn familiarity that reminds one of the early Jayhawks (or Jack White-Loretta Lynn, if Jack were a bit less nasal). When they cut loose on the soulful “What A Friend”, the results are stunning. And when they branch out, as on the laidback “Used To Be” or the interweaving “Prepared”, the chemistry is remarkable.
The production, courtesy of Aaron Franz Little, avoids pretty much all of the standard CCM clichés – it’s densely arranged and expertly played, full of unexpected flourishes. The drum sound in particular stands out, with no trace of that early 90s processing that plagues so many similar such records. Stylistically, although the impressive breadth works for the most part – are those echoes of Sabbath’s “War Pigs” I hear in the psychedelic “My Love”?! – the Magills are at their best in their country-rock comfort zone.
Theologically, the emphasis is twofold: 1. The reality of human weakness/brokenness and 2. God’s saving grace in Christ. Rescue, assurance, salvation – these are the main themes, with God presented predominantly (and refreshingly) as savior. The subjective elements serve them well, imbuing the overall verticality of the record with real feeling without sacrificing any of its Cross-centeredness. In context, the handful of (what could be heard as) best-life-now moments come off more as the once-was-lost-now-am-found sentiments that have long been hallmarks of the country gospel genre, with Magill always careful to describe personal salvation as a past, present and future concern.
So it is a rare feat The Magills have accomplished here: a musically engaging pseudo-worship record that manages to be genuinely uplifting without ignoring the pain or tragedy of life, explicit without being heavy-handed, sincere but not sappy – in short, a thoroughly infectious blend of hope, hard knocks and sweet, sweet harmonies. Powerful stuff.