Why should the Presbyterians have all the good music?

It’s been a while since I wrote about Christian music, but something this morning really made me pause and think.

Horatio Spafford is known for a few things, principally as a chum of great evangelist Dwight Moody and the writer of “It is well with my Soul” – a hymn inspired by the tragic loss of his four daughters in a shipwreck when crossing the Atlantic to holiday in England. The hymn, published by Sankey to a tune by Philip Bliss, is a standard in traditional protestant Christian churches, an inspiring message that whatever the world throws at a person God’s love and grace are sufficient to meet the challenge. It’s a hymn strong on key Christian themes, and recognised and sung across the English-speaking world.

Which is why I’m rather disappointed that Matt Redman nicked the chorus to shore up one of his recent compositions.

“It is well with my soul” is credited to Matt and Beth Redman, and it’s not their best work. Specifically:

  1. It’s lyrically weak. Plenty of general imagery, and half-quotes from scripture, but it’s very much about feelings and recycled metaphor. An album review rightly commented that it lacks specific theme or direction. The original is more about simile – real things expressed by comparison. Yes, some of those were also a bit trite, but the hymn had more content, and each verse gave specific reasons for the sentiment of the chorus.
  2. The common accusation that modern Christian worship songs over-repeat simple phrases is exemplified in this new song which takes the one line refrain from a classic hymn and ditches the rest. Without strong lyrical context in the verses, the result is an inspiring sound, but it lacks depth of meaning. In this way, the inspirational chorus becomes a dreary repetitive line.
  3. It’s in a bad key for singing, and is regularly transposed for use by mere mortals. I swear the chap is the missing genetic link between humans and chipmunks. The chorus is written to finish on a top E. That’s two keys higher than I’d choose to play it for a typical congregation.
  4. Word placement and syntax are apparently abandoned in favour of “sounding right” with adjectives separated from their nouns by verbs which don’t belong there and some rather loose phrasing. I’m not against painting with words, but bad sentence structure makes it less singable.
  5. Speaking of which, the tune for the new bits isn’t very good either. Melody is a strong point of the original composer, and a weakness of this track. It only serves to accentuate the failings of this re-working.

Frankly, it’s just a pity Redman couldn’t write a killer chorus of his own to use with these words, because it’s neither a quality re-write nor a fitting tribute to the song he’s lifted material from. I much prefer the original “proper” version to the pale imitation.

The song features on Redman’s 2015 album “Unbroken Praise” which also features a track called “Abide with me” (not the one you’re expecting, and includes quotes from “O love that will not let me go”) and similarly traditional sounding titles. I’m sure that it fits his market and his publisher managed to promote it to 8th most popular in an annual industry chart. Unfortunately it can’t cover over his slightly ham-fisted treatment of a classic anthem.

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