The Advent of Christmas

Matt Maher

Provident, 2018

REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp


Christmas albums are tricky business for Christian recording artists. When put out by secular artists, an album of carols typically comes across as little more than a lazy cash grab – which is why, frankly, they’re usually pretty terrible (looking at you, Bob Dylan.) But for Christian artists, the Christmas album is a chance to seize a moment, to speak to themes of hope, peace, love, and joy in a way that resonates not only with fellow believers, but spiritual seekers drawn into the music by seasonal sentimentality. The tricky part is determining how best to do that: how many traditional carols to cover, whether to include secular carols or just hymns, how many original songs to write, etc. Finding the right balance is usually the difference between success and filler.

Matt Maher’s first Christmas album manages to find that balance. Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten to find it with great songs. The Advent Of Christmas is a well-rounded but forgettable album unlikely to be added to your playlist of holiday tunes.

Things start with “Gabriel’s Message,” a dramatic, minor-key song featuring a stringed orchestra and children’s choir, the kind of piece that begins every Christmas pageant you’ve ever attended. Were it the beginning of a more thematic concept album, it would be a fitting introduction, but on an album that has “Jingle Bells” three songs later, it’s an odd choice. This is true, by the way, of “Jingle Bells” itself, the only secular carol found on the album, and one that Maher doesn’t do much with other than play some jazzy piano.

Much more in line with what fans expect from Maher is “He Shall Reign Forevermore,” cowritten by Chris Tomlin. Unfortunately for Maher, Tomlin beat him to the punch when he featured this song on his own 2017 Christmas album, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Adore – to superior effect. Where Tomlin’s version has the swelling instrumentals you’d expect of a song meant to evoke the chorus of a heavenly host, Maher’s relies instead on softer percussion and woodwinds. It’s an odd choice, and while the song inches toward something powerful by the end, it never quite overcomes its shaky start.

“Born On That Day” and “Hope For Everyone” are the two tracks most likely to appeal to Maher fans, with the former getting airplay on Christian radio this month and the latter already staking its claim as the fan favorite from this album (including for this fan.) Both are heavy on production, but Maher’s appealing vocals and mastery of lyrics – few are better right now in the modern worship scene – make these worth listening to. “Hope For Everyone,” in particular, manages to make the themes of Christmas jump off the Bible’s pages and deliver a sincere, emotional message.

One of Maher’s favorite songwriting tricks (indeed, a trick employed by a bevy of Christian worship leaders these days) is to add a new chorus and/or bridge to a familiar hymn, and he pulls that rabbit out of the hat in The Advent Of Christmas multiple times. “The First Noel” is a straight cover until segueing into an original chorus which, frankly, neither helps nor hurts the song. It’s musical warm milk, comfortable but nothing exciting. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” are the same way, both nodding toward originality without committing to it. All three of these songs leave the listener wanting more, and not in the good way.

Wanting more is the opposite of how I felt after listening to “Always Carry You,” where Amy Grant takes the lead on vocals and gives listeners a song that would have been right at home in a 1990 Christmas musical, complete with spoken word poetry in the middle and a children’s chorus. In a mostly mediocre album, this song is just plain bad – professionally done, but completely out of place. That sense of incongruity goes also for penultimate track “Little Merry Christmas,” a peppy jam that would go great over a montage in a Christmas movie, but just sounds weird on this album, especially given that it is followed by piano-and-strings album closer “When I Think of Christmas.”

Matt Maher, as a general rule, doesn’t know how to write bad songs, and thus this is not a bad album. He avoids many of the pitfalls of other Christmas albums, balances the secular and the sacred, and features both the traditional and the original, but it all adds up to a collective ‘meh.’ The Advent of Christmas will momentarily please fans craving new material, but I doubt many of those fans will remember the songs by this time next year. They are technically good and well balanced, but in the end, the music simply fails to captivate. Christmas albums are tricky business, and this album proves that it takes more than just learning those tricks to bring holiday cheer.

Rating: C

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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