With 44 GMA Dove Awards, three GRAMMYs and more than 15 million in sales to his credit, Michael W. Smith has created an unparalleled musical legacy. Some would say he pioneered the Christian music genre itself, having become the most recognized and respected ambassadors for faith infused music world wide. So, how does Christian music’s most enthusiastic innovator approach his 22nd career project? On Wonder, Smith takes his signature creative genius and faith-inspired insights to yet another level with a powerful album that reveals the acclaimed singer, songwriter, composer and worship leader as passionate and poignant as ever.
Thematically, Wonder applies the understanding gained from a personal relationship with the Creator to a wider relationship with an increasingly troubled earthbound community. While writing and recording Wonder, the world economy struggled. Haiti—a place close to Michael and wife Debbie’s hearts—was devastated by an earthquake and in the final weeks of production, Nashville was hit with an unprecedented flood. While tragedy was ever present, making it difficult to see God’s hand at work, Smith guides the listener to a place of hope through Wonder.
With the heart of a worship leader, having influenced millions with three of the most impactful worship recordings in the past decade (Worship, Worship Again and A New Hallelujah) Michael is able to translate this sentiment to the day-to-day. While still leaning heavily on themes of awe and inspiration, Wonder gives worship hands and feet, and shows how faith becomes reality when God’s people recognize their humanity and reach out to their community.
“We can sing worship songs ‘til we’re blue, but if we’re not looking after people who arestruggling, looking after orphans, if we’re not helping those in need, I don’t think we can say we’re fully living out our faith,” notes Smith. “I’m encouraged every day by our youth,” adds Smith, the founder of Rocketown, a Nashville-based club for teens. “I see a wave of this next generation of young people who have a good handle on this idea. For example, instead of going and partying for spring break, they’re down in Guatemala for the week helping and serving people. That’s lifestyle worship.”
While still acknowledging God’s absolute authority, Smith delves deeply into the hardship and hope, confusion and confidence, desperation and dedication that come with life on earth. He connects with a broken, out-of-control spirit in “Run to You”; acknowledges the real-world hardships of the Country’s current economic situation in “I’ll Wait for You”; and—in a raw and transparent lyrical and vocal outpouring—addresses abuse and teen bullying in “Leave.”
Despite the sorrow and the inexplicable suffering he’s seen firsthand through his 20 plus years of work with Compassion International and in the relationships he’s built with at-risk teens while creating and investing in Rocketown, Smith couches his subjects in unending hope.
“There can be hope in the midst of sadness, hope in the midst of losing your job, hope in the midst of losing your home in a flood,” he says. “I know it’s easier to say than to walk out but I have to believe that out of tragedy there’s something wonderful that God wants to do in the midst of all that.”
As a result, Wonder is one of the most impactful albums of his career: anthemic, deep, sweeping and cinematic. This project manages to carry an air of possibility while acknowledging the pitfalls of this-world existence, effortlessly juxtaposing sometimes dark lyrics with catchy hooks and uplifting melodies. “We acknowledge the pain but we claim the promise of hope.”
Built on resonant drum beats, inspired production elements and a cohesive effort from a studio rhythm section that recorded together on the entire project, Wonder uniquely melds Smitty’s commitment to music, people and life in a highly melodic, supremely infectious project that hints at the multiple facets of his career.
The worship aspect of his profile is expressed in the prayerful closing “Take Me Over,” which shifts into an epic, orchestral passage that incorporates the instrumental magic of his Freedom album. But the core of Wonder is the pop-oriented side of “Smitty’s” musical personality, expressed repeatedly in the buoyant tempos and guitar-driven sonics of “Save Me From Myself,” “Take My Breath Away,” “Run to You” and the title track, “Wonder (Not Far Away).” Likewise, Wonder’s ballads hinge on his dramatic sense of melody, particularly on the end-of-life celebration “Welcome Home” and a moving pair of love songs—“Forever Yours” and “You Belong to Me”—written for Debbie, his wife of 29 years.
Throughout, Michael’s expressive, gritty voice emphasizes every shred of feeling in the album. “For some reason, I probably got way inside the emotions of this record maybe more than on any record that I’ve done. I found myself just in-the-moment on every one of these songs.”
Smith re-enlisted producer Bryan Lenox, who contributed to his earlier albums Go West Young Man, This Is Your Time and Freedom. Working primarily at tobyMac’s studio in Middle Tennessee, Lenox added to the exuberance Smith already had for the material.
“I always knew he was energetic, but he is one of the most driven, multi-tasking producers I’ve worked with. He’d amaze me during sessions watching him going 100 miles an hour on takes with buttons flying and monitors going; he’s just really fast. He’s got great ideas, but his strong suit in my book is he’s got great ears, and I think he sonically brought something to the record that’s compelling and strong.”
A good portion of that strength came with the band that Lenox assembled around Michael: drummer Dan Needham (Michael McDonald, CeCe Winans), Australian-born guitarist Adam Lester (Peter Frampton, Michael Tait) and bass player Jacob Lowery, best-known for his work as a drummer with Phillips Craig & Dean.
As a result, Wonder became a team effort in which Lenox and the four musicians built a focused, intense foundation for Smith’s performances. “There’s something special when you have a group of guys that are playing on the whole record for the most part,” Smith notes. “It was great camaraderie, and something happened in the studio as we were feeding off each other. I don’t know if it raised people’s game or what, but I think it was a combination of the songs and the guys and me being right there for every track that got recorded. Something happened. I don’t think you can manufacture that.”
Another unique element Lenox brought to the process is the use of a brand-new studiotechnology called The Clasp that allows performances to be recorded on analog tape but mixed using digital processes. It gave the album a richer, warmer texture; made it more personal and accessible. Smith joined Lenny Kravitz as one of the first to use The Clasp, which has since been adopted for Peter Gabriel sessions and a remastering project using classic Michael Jackson tracks.
“The sound throughout the record has a lot of depth – a lot of space,” Smith says. “Tape is big and warm compared to digital, so the sound of Wonder is probably unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
It’s easily apparent that even after 21 albums in the past 27 years, “Smitty” has yet to lose his interest in music or the message he wants to share. In fact, his creativity, energy and innovative approach appear to be expanding with each new effort.
“The journey’s not finished. We’ve all got our gifts and we all get to contribute, and this is what I’m supposed to do. For some reason, I still love music. For some reason, I still love performing live. And for some reason, I still feel a bit of a surge when I step into a recording studio.
“It makes me think of the movie Chariots Of Fire. I’ll never forget, it just took my breath away when Eric Little said, ‘When I run, I feel His pleasure.’ I feel that way. Making music, singing these songs, that’s what I’m made to do.”
Sep 23 - Rock the Lakes - Sunday