This was the first Hillsong United album I bought, and is almost certainly the last I will buy, if not listen to altogether. Like many people who heard “Oceans” — a nine-minute song that dominated Christian music charts for a couple years (almost every week, solid, for multiple years!) — that was my first exposure to this band, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Now, I’m not necessarily against “worship” music — which is basically a newfangled way of saying “Christian pop that can be ‘sung’ easily by a wide audience” — but I do find it to be all-too convenient way of making very generic songs in an easy-to-digest manner for the masses. Outside of “Oceans” and maybe two other tracks, this album is entirely forgettable in nearly every way.
Too many tracks have a rotating list of male singers that literally simply speak generic religious words like “hallelujah!” (really?) to overly synthy music (that typically blends together into a mess you can’t even differentiate). It feels like the whole album (outside of “Oceans”) was made in an automated Create-A-Song machine where a random grab-bag of Christian terms and phrases were thrown in.
As before, the only highlight are the songs featuring Taya Smith — the band’s sole valid selling-point and the singer of “Oceans” that catapulted the band to across-genre-recognition. Sadly, I think we get two sings from her, and backing vocals on a couple others.
In short, I would say just avoid these Hillsong United albums. They aren’t very well made overall (aside from one or two radio-friendly tracks), and the lack of lyrical substance and creativity and musical distinctiveness on almost all of their songs makes the whole listening experience rather unpleasant.
I’m not a huge Christian music person, and even with secular music I’m not as keen on listening as I used to be, when I was in my teens and twenties. But, I have heard a couple Hillsong United songs over the years, and wanted to give them a shot. So, I picked up their bestselling album, Zion, and the follow-up one from 2015, Empires, as well. While I did partially listen to Zion awhile back, today I listed to Empires in full, as I drove around, and I figured that would give me a good sense of whether or not the album worked, since I could listen to it in full, in a few large chunks.
Sadly, outside of the key single “Touch The Sky” the entire album is not very good. Most of the songs’ lyrics are very hard to hear, and mixed in with too many competing instruments and effects. Empires is just way too overproduced. Additionally, most of the songs seem to flow into the next one to the point where they almost all sound alike, and just two of the dozen songs are even worth listening to a second time (obviously “Touch The Sky,” and the other is “Even When It Hurts”). Even worse, the muddled vocals stretched across most of the tracks seem very generic.
I understand what Hillsong United does — it occurred to me as the album thankfully came to a close — they simply want lengthy albums that allow a large number of performers and musicians to have stuff to do on stage. Their strongest songs have always been those sung by Taya Smith, a newcomer who catapulted Hillsong United to the top of charts for years with “Oceans” and I’m just not convinced most people now would even want to listen to these albums if it weren’t for her. So I would advise to listen to this on streaming if you’re curious, and not to buy it unheard, like I did. Or just buy the two songs I mentioned.