Hymns are so endearingly forceful because they contain words that are so arresting. Never one to expound on God's reliability in the abstract, a hymn like "Great is Thy Faithfulness," calls upon the sun, moon and stars to the stand in the witness dock to vouch for God's faithfulness in times when we have lost the strength for today. Hymns never leave us in the orbit of mere ideologies. Rather, they take the grand truths of Scripture and ground them in the concrete mortars of life's challenges. Michael W. Smith's "Hymns" is no exception; this is a collection that gives us physical clutches when our walk with the Lord becomes wobbly. In releasing an album of 15 hymns, Smith is following the footsteps of Alan Jackson, Jimmy Needham, Nicole C. Mullen and Amy Grant in giving us a breather of an album in between his own original releases.
Released just at the eve of his own proper studio album "Sovereign," "Hymns" is specifically recorded to be sold only at Cracker Barrel Restaurants and on their online store. Featuring a sepia-tinted photo of Smith sitting in a pew of an old country church backed by the rays of the morning sun, "Hymns" is as warm and cozy as the album cover. Instead of his usual splash of dynamic worship, "Hymns" is a hushed and reverent affair, with most of these tracks boasting a little more than a piano, harmony vocals, and some little touches of rustic instrumentations such as the fiddle, banjo, ukulele and mandolin. Those who are used to the often crowded sounds of Smith's latter works would be surprised when the first notes of "The Old Rugged Cross" hits. Featuring just Smith's voice guided by the gorgeous tinkling of the ivory notes of a grand piano, there's an intimacy and sparseness that is particularly refreshing.
Over the years, Smith has always had a country edge, but due to the demands of his own commitments, he had never really explored his more rustic roots. Thus, it's to the indulgence of country fans when we hear Smith rendering "My Jesus, I Love Thee" amidst the beautiful mandolin riffs. And Smitty spikes up the bluegrass element in "Victory in Jesus." Thanks to producer Jim Daneker (who has worked with Smith on his "Joshua" and "The Second Chance" soundtracks), listen especially to how the ingenious use of key changes reflects the various stations of Jesus on his Via Dolorosa. Though most of the hymns here date back from 1708 to 1953, Smith has also brushed the dust off a more contemporary hymn: 1989's "Wonderful, Merciful Savior." This Dawn Rogers and Eric Wise composition reminds us that the years have not robbed us of the ability to tease out tunes of the everlasting nature.
While each track here is consciously tasteful and performed with a thoughtful sincerity, the similarity in tempo running through most of these 15 tracks somehow blurs the whole package together, making the listening experience a tad soporific at times. Nevertheless, the record is redeemed towards its tailed end. Kyle Lee (who co-produces the album with Smith and Jim Daneker) captures Smith singing "God of Our Fathers" with a choir of sounds, bringing out that old country church nostalgia. And "The Lord Bless and Keep You" brings us into the litany of a high church that functions as an appropriate benediction as we exit the album blessed that we have met the Lord. "Hymns," in sum, is a rare excursion for Smith: here we are blessed to find him in his reflective best over some tunes that have defied the trials of time.