Hillsong UNITED “Of Dirt and Grace: Live from the Land” Album Review

Hillsong United

Prime Cuts: Touch the Sky, Prince of Peace, Street Called Mercy

Creativity is in cruise control as far as Hillsong UNITED's "Of Dirt and Grace" is concerned.  While it's currently fashionable for Christian artists to offer a remix or acoustic rendition of their hit album a year or so after the album's initial release, UNITED has bucked the trend by giving us something completely revolutionary. "Of Dirt and Grace" is neither a mere remix album nor an acoustic album.  Rather, it's touted as a visual album where the musical shaping of the songs are nuanced by the band's actual performing of these selections live in various locations of Israel.  Taking the same twelve songs that first appeared on UNIED's 2015 "Empires" album, the Aussie team has re-recorded them with newly imagined arrangements and vocals.   

Since all of these tracks were filmed and performed outdoors on the same turf where Jesus himself trod, the backings of these 15 tracks are spacey, warm, organic and breezy.  Instead of embedding them with EDM pulses as the originals were, all of the songs have been decelerated into slow and pensive ballads.  As a result, with all the songs of "Of Dirt and Grace" being ballads, this is a major departure from all of UNITED's albums. Even "Here Now (Madness)" which used to have an EDM streak is re-interpreted as a folky soft rock piece. "Streets Called Mercy" which was filmed on the Via Dolorosa has a 3-D dimension to it that even comes with a U2-esque echo-y reverb.

Not since Darlene Zschech (who sang the lion's share on many Hillsong Live albums) has any one Hillsong leader sang on copious tracks on one album. Taya Smith is the exception.  Here, she gets the microphone on almost half the album; a fleet unparalleled in UNITED'S history.  While Joel Houston handled the lead on album's lead single "Prince of Peace," Smith takes over this time.  Filmed at the Golan Heights Memorial of War and by the shining lights of the old city, the war-like apocalyptic images of Jesus really comes alive on this worship number.  While many of the songs do get a melodramatic makeover, "Touch the Sky" retains the propulsive drive and the congregational focus of the original.  "Even When It Hurts (Praise Song)," which is the album's nerve center, is filmed on a dark and cold street bringing out vividly the song's message of how God is still sovereign in our pain.

Filmed in a boat adrift in the Sea of Galilee, the Smith-led "Captain" installs a visual dimension that is both breathtakingly meaningful as well as spiritually reassuring.  The album closes off with a few bonus tracks including two cuts from UNITED's 2013's "Zion" and "I Surrender" from Hillsong Live's "Cornerstone."  Lifted from "Zion" is UNITED's quintessential #1 hit "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" which gets an orchestrated backing with a prominent violin backing that is pulverisingly beautiful.  "I Surrender" which is filmed by the ancient walls of a ruined temple gets an animated reading making it essential viewing.  While many worship albums serve to engage the ears, "Of Dirt and Grace" makes Jesus palatable through all our five senses.  On this disc not only do we get to worship Jesus, but the entire Bible seem to come alive before our very eyes as we worship.




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