Early Monday evening, Hillsong United dropped their highly-anticipated, heavily-promoted, and widely-acclaimed record Empires. In the past couple of months, the Australian worship band had released snapshots of their fourth studio album’s landscape and yet still managed to maintain a degree of secrecy. Teasing the world’s ears, Touch the Sky, Prince of Peace, and Heart Like Heaven were each released weeks apart from each other leading up to this week’s release.
In all honesty, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this record. 2013’s Zion, their previous album which boasts the smash hit Oceans (Where Feet May Fail), was incredibly disappointing in totality. With the last record’s taste still lingering in my mind, my expectations for Empires weren’t great.
Since Monday night, I’ve listened to the album from beginning-to-end at least fifteen times. Initially, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think nor to feel. After a couple listens thru, I’ve grown to enjoy the record.
On their website, Hillsong describes Empires:
EMPIRES is the story of two worlds. Our prayer and desire has been to simply create the most honest project we could. Songs that seek to listen first, and then with God’s breath speak the good news reality of Jesus and His grace into the dichotomy, tension and hopeful-collision of this broken and fragile world we see here and now, and the unshakeable and mysterious reality of the Kingdom we can’t see, but no-less know is here – and NOW.
The twelve-track album spans just over seventy minutes with a majority of the songs being either medium or slow-tempo and nearly half of the songs being led by Taya Smith, the nine-member band’s sole lady musician.
Lyrically, I found that United achieved their desire to create their most honest project.
While some have critiqued the lyrics for being “too poetic” and “foreign to the common Christian,” I think their words are brave, bold, raw, and real. Reminiscent of King David’s fervent Psalms, tracks such as Even When It Hurts (Praise Song) are courageous in acknowledging the darkness of life while also firm in proclaiming that, regardless of circumstance, God is worthy of our praise.
Though the band has received some criticism for the song due to the allegedly crude line “even when it hurts like hell,” I believe the song is both comforting and affirming for those who are dealing with doubts and difficult periods in their life. This track along with a bulk of the record are narrated by similarly honest and engaging words.
The only lyrics I find to be odd are Prince of Peace‘s “my eyes met yours.” For some reason, these words sound more like a love ballad than a worship song. That may just be me though.
Stylistically, the album is leaps and bounds ahead of Zion. The sound is more similar to Aftermath, my favorite album by United, than it is Zion. Though the sound is much of an improvement, I do think that the technicality of the tracks will hinder the ability for most churches to play many, if any, of these songs. While the tracks don’t necessarily possess many technically difficult parts to fill individually, they do have numerous layers of pads and loops that many volunteer-led bands will have a difficult time incorporating into their Sunday morning sets.
This isn’t an indictment on the band for producing too progressive music. Rather, I think it reveals the seemingly insurmountable valley between one cliff that is the sound of contemporary culture and another cliff that is contemporary Christian worship music. With the efforts of bands like United, Kings Kaleidoscope, Citizens & Saints, and Rend Collective each expressing their worship through music that both allows them be creatively expressive and culturally engaging, hopefully this valley will be filled over time.
Lastly, Empires does’t have that song like From the Inside Out, With Everything, Take Heart, or Oceans that local churches will take and play until it’s nearly dead. Instead, the album is well-rounded and I believe best enjoyed and appreciated when listened to in its entirety.
My favorite tracks are Here Now (Madness), Even When It Hurts (Praise Song), and Empires.