Is the third time truly a charm? Fans of this transplanted South Africa-born worship leader certainly hope so.
10 tracks / 38:26 minutes
A truly remarkable first album can best be described as a two-edged sword. On the positive side of the coin, it usually provides wider exposure and previously-unavailable opportunities for those who create it. Likewise, it often bestows upon its author an increased measure of artistic control over the projects that follow. Conversely, though, landmark freshman efforts can often serve as impossibly-high hurdles that their creators wind up clearing only sporadically over the remainder of their careers.
South Africa-born worship leader Brenton Brown probably knows this conundrum as well as anyone. His first outing as a solo performer, Everlasting God, immediately vaulted him into the big leagues, thanks in no small part to the widespread popularity of the leadoff cut, "Hosanna (Praise is Rising)." The now-familiar piece quickly became a fan favorite and went on to take its place as a staple in modern worship circles and church services nationwide. The album's title track, which was even more successful, pulled down a GMA Dove Award nomination for Worship Song of the Year and was subsequently recorded by a host of other top-name artists, including Christ Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster, whose version wound up hitting the top spot on the CCM chart.
Like the debut and 2008's Because of Your Love before it, Our God Is Near has a good deal to recommend it. "We Lift You Up" perches itself nicely atop an infectious melody line and stirring, march-like cadence. "Arise & Sing" is blessed with a similarly peppy rhythmic undergirding, while the beautifully understated "All for You" concludes the proceedings on a fittingly reflective note. Brown truly hits his stride, however, on the remarkable, "All I Want." Its verses paint a stark and moving picture of sin's aftermath (Forgiveness comes to me/ Though I do not deserve it/ I barely speak the words/ And You draw near again), while its highly parallel chorus construction (All I've got/ All I want/ Is in You/ It's in You) renders it, far and away, Near's most memorable instrumental passage.
The problem, though, is that these songs are as much the exception as they are the rule. "Our God Is Mercy" is injected with a welcome sense of tense expectation, but that tension builds to a seemingly inevitable peak that, unfortunately, never materializes. Brown's treatment of the classic-hymn-with-modern-lyrics hybrid, "Joyful," is rushed to the point of disconnectedness, rendering it a poorer cousin to similar, more engaging, counterparts such as Chris Tomlin's "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)." The lively power pop number, "Higher (Empires Fall)," does possess a certainly bubbly charm, but that charm is, unfortunately, all but swallowed up by its largely run-of-the-mill melodic content. And cuts like "Good News" (This is the good news/ We've found peace on earth/ We're alive/ And we'll sing Your worth) only work to highlight the album's intermittent lyrical shortfalls.
In fairness, none of the lesser pieces are out-and-out washes. On the contrary, even at its weakest points, Near is never less than thoroughly pleasant. And, much like Brown's previous output, most, if not all, of the tracks on the latest project would be assets to those seeking to use them in the live worship setting. There aren't any modern-day classics on the order of "Everlasting God" or "Hosanna" this time out, but what is here is certainly agreeable enough. And Brown's sturdy, distinctive voice lends the proceedings a welcome sense of cohesiveness. Although it isn't as consistently strong as the releases which have preceded it, Our God is Near should still please existing members of the Brown's fan base. For the uninitiated, on the other hand, the debut still remains the most ideal starting point for those just beginning to investigate the talented artist's body of work.