REVIEW: Matt McCoy – Heaven Calling
I have to admit, I’m not much of a “love at first listen” music consumer. Very rarely do I love an album the first time I hear it. Even the ones I like on first listen, I tend to like even more upon repeated listen. Then, there are those albums that simply don’t grab me at first, but sneak up on me later, when I least expect it.
Matt McCoy’s new release, Heaven Calling falls into the latter category. It’s hard to describe. It’s not that I didn’t like the record the first time I heard it. I actually really enjoyed the opening track “My Eyes Are Fixed On You” from the first note, but the album as a whole didn’t really grab me. Mind you, the production quality is great, mix is excellent, musicality is solid and the songwriting is mostly good. There just seemed to be something missing.
But I know Matt and I know him to be a great worship leader, so I continued to listen…and I wasn’t disappointed. What I found is an inspired album that, in spite of one significant flaw, which I will discuss later, manages to bring a lot to the table. Mentioned earlier, the opening track, “My Eyes Are Fixed On You” is one of the best on the album. It is a big song with big production and nice little aural touches that make it feel much more like a big-budget song than an indie record. “My Eyes Are Fixed On You” is followed by “Stronger Than The Storm” and “Sovereign King”, two songs reminiscent of some of Chris Tomlin’s early work. “Sovereign King” stands out, however, as a great congregational worship tune with emotionally charged verses, an anthemic chorus that begs to be sung by a crowd and great interaction between McCoy’s lead vocal and excellent BGVs provided by Lindsay McCaul.
Lindsay also lends a hand on the fourth track, “Alleluia”, which opens with a bit of a surprise for a solo album – someone other than Matt singing lead. It works for the record, though. A bit reminiscent of a Christy Nockels vocal in the midst of an otherwise male-led Passion record, the track benefits greatly from the female voice.
The next two tracks, “Take Control” and “You Will Be My Song” are solid in their own right, but not especially noteworthy. Track 7, “Will You Carry Me” is an honest conversation with God that reminds me of so many I’ve had – the thoughts and questions of a broken person and the recognition of an ever-present and loving God. It is the story of a prodigal returning home – or rather, of a prodigal recognizing the need to turn homeward.
For “I Know I’m Yours”, McCoy returns to the Passion ’98 vibe in a way that almost makes me nostalgic. All that’s missing are several thousand other voices singing along in agreement. I can hear the crowd singing the tag – “So take the world, but give me You…” This is one of those “lost in worship” songs that could go on forever (at almost 6 minutes, it’s one of the longer songs on the record).
After “I Know I’m Yours” comes the pop-rock tune “Trust In The Lord” followed by the somewhat confusing “Kindness”. Don’t get me wrong, I like the song. The confusing part is the production choices made in the first 45 seconds. I must have listened to this track 20 plus times trying to find the downbeat in the first verse before ultimately pulling out the metronome to try to decipher the code. What I discovered was that either my ears were completely fooled, or Matt and the band weren’t actually sure of where the downbeat was either. About half way through the first verse, I think we all found it and the song progressed nicely from that point, but up until then, I was really lost. Now, I’ve had those times before when my mind was convinced that the downbeat should be in a certain place and I just couldn’t shake it. Admittedly, this may be one of those times and, if shown the correct position of “1″, I might reevaluate my previous statements, but nonetheless, this seems like a production decision that may have sounded cool in the studio, but served as a distraction to me.
But enough of that technical pissy-ness. “I Choose You” is a straight-forward presentation of the incredible choice that we are offered in Jesus. Stylistically, there’s somewhat of a Matt Redman quality to the song, especially in the verses. That is followed by the mysterious, atmospheric opening of “You’ve Given Everything”, which eventually builds into a furious, driving, repeatable chorus which, again, begs to be sung in a big arena with a big crowd, flowing into the album’s final track, “Calling Home”, which is more of an extended tag on the end of “You’ve Given Everything” than it is a stand-alone song.
The verdict: Yes, this album is full of Passion-esque songs and sounds. Just as songwriters and worship leaders of my generation and a little older were profoundly impacted by Vineyard Music and early Delirious?, so Matt’s generation and younger have been forever impacted by Tomlin, Crowder and the rest of the Sixsteps crew. I don’t have a problem with that, but if you’re not a Tomlin fan, you may not be a fan of this record. It’s certainly not “rehashed” in any way, but the style and sound are similar to what you would expect from the Passion folks. On the other hand, if you like Chris, David, Charlie and the gang (and many certainly do) then I would wholeheartedly suggest that you pick this record up.
“What about the one significant flaw?” Yes, I mentioned in my open that there was a significant flaw in this record (and no, it wasn’t the opening of “Kindness”). It took me a while to put my finger on it, but this is what I concluded: Matt seems to suffer from the same syndrome as many other excellent worship leaders. The passion, energy and authenticity he exhibits on stage in a live worship setting simply doesn’t come through in a studio recording. There is a huge gap between the Matt McCoy you get in a live setting and the Matt McCoy you get in the studio.
Fortunately for Matt, he is in good company when it comes to the live vs. studio disconnect. Two of the most influential worship leaders in recent history, Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman, both suffered (or still suffer) from the same issue. Fortunately for both of these artists, they had, in addition to studio work, live recordings which let people know what they could really do. Tomlin’s contribution to the live Passion records and Redman’s 2004 release Facedown allowed these two seminal worship leaders to exist in their comfort zone and allowed the listener to hear “what all the fuss was about”.
In McCoy’s album, you hear this familiar problem, which is often discovered when one tries to record a worship leader. Unlike the pop stars and TV creations found on hit radio, worship leaders tend to actually be better live artists than they are studio artists. Most worship leaders, after all, are playing live in front of large crowds on a regular basis long before they record an album. Take a guy or girl out of that in-the-moment worship setting, put them in a tiny box with a giant microphone and some engineer or producer yelling in their ear, and the whole experience loses something. The “something” could be called many things – maybe “passion” or “worshipfulness” or more mysteriously “the Spirit”. Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with musicality or technicality, but affects the overall sound just the same. Is that Matt’s fault? I don’t think so. Personally, I would rather go to a live event and hear something better than the record than to hear something worse. In short, I’d rather hear Matt than, say, Taylor, the Jonas boys or Miley.
In the end, this is a good record with some really good songs. It’s definitely worth picking up and is, I think, a taste of what’s to come from McCoy. Here’s to hoping we get live recordings of some of these songs in the future.
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