Friday, 14 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #52: Devoted (2004)

Christian singer Liz Fitzgibbon makes a surprise appearance on the chart with Devoted, her most recent effort.Liz Fitzgibbon was born and raised in County Cork, Ireland. Through her early years she became an in-demand soloist, and began writing songs in 1997. She first came to the attention of the Christian music industry through her involvement in worship at her local church. Her synthesis of traditional Celtic motifs with modern worship attracted the powers that be at Kingsway Music, as did her sweet, pure voice. She got her big break appearing on The New Celts Volume 2 (2002). This recording helped to lay the groundwork for both the resulting albums and her work across the UK and USA, joining the likes of Iona at the forefront of contemporary Celtic Christian music.

Devoted opens with 'You Are My Strong Tower', the only track on here from The New Celts Volume 2. And it's a good choice to begin with. The beautiful piano and flute parts provide the ideal opening into which Fitzgibbon's voice fits so serenely. Her voice is purer than Iona's Joanne Hogg without losing any of its character or power. And it's better than Enya because it's authentic; you don't get the impression that every note has been tweaked and passed through a synthesiser, and you become confident that the sound will be as good live as it is on here. The production itself is tight, the lyrics are masterful and the whole product is a work of art, an ethereal start to the album.

Few artists in any genre can follow genius with genius, but that is precisely what Fitzgibbon does on 'Show Mercy'. This is slightly more conventional, insofar as it could be conceivably used as a worship song. But although it has a simple refrain and even simpler lyrics, it loses none of the power instilled by the previous track. The flute is again out in glory, and the drums are a very nice touch - like Franz van Essen in Iona, they are dynamic without being imposing. It's a glorious song, the perfect showcase for Fitzgibbon's range and her natural grace with words, as the lines tumble out of her lips like bells chiming.

On the basis of the last two tracks, 'I Need You More' might come across as a letdown. But it's not. It's a track which manages to strike a good balance between emotional tenderness and strength. It's set out in the same verse-chorus pattern of 'Show Mercy', and the lyrics are just as overtly spiritual. But the delivery of such lyrics works because it is not being done by or like a random guy with a badly tuned guitar. Equally good is 'Wash Me Clean Lord Jesus'. This is acoustic-based and bereft of drums or anything else which benefitted the last track. There is an attractive violin part put in on the quiet (and it is quiet), but once again the vocals are put at the centre, and the end result is brilliant.

'Come Down O Holy One' not only continues this trend of brilliance, but it extrapolates it. This track is closer to Iona in terms of the background music - the long, yearning strings and keyboards. And yet Fitzgibbon's voice shines through resolutely, beaming through the mix like a laser in a blizzard. Her voice is so pure and so unobtrusive that it's very hard to hate this performance, as with everything that has gone before.

The first real letdown on Devoted in 'Every Knee Shall Bow'. To describe this as 'obvious' is to do it something of a disservice, since it is a worship song and therefore is meant to be. The problem is more that the music is very flat - the drums especially - and as such there is nothing to cushion and support the vocals. It does sound like an award-winning singer, backed by a worship band which only rehearses every other month. It has a kind of Hillsongs feel to it which renders it just a bit... old hat. 'Won't You Come Lord Jesus' suffers from the same maladies. Although this is quite beautiful, especially the organ part, it just feels that bit too forced to work completely - at least set alongside its rivals.

The title track is a step back in the right direction, being as it is a return to so-called Celtic production devices. The lyrics are a little simpler this time round, but nothing is lost in the performance. The flutes here are deeper and subtler, allowing more room for the blossoming vocals. She sings about her relationship with God, and you don't have to think twice to understand the honesty which resounds from her performance.

The last third of the album proves to be a little shaky. 'What A Friend I've Found' is a rehash of a standard worship song. Delirious? covered this on King Of Fools (1997), and did a terrible job dressing it up in indie-style vocals and sub-standard guitar work. But this rendition is more freewheeling; Fitzgibbon is not boxed in or confined by the original lyrics, instead she improvises over and around them. This makes it more personal, making you satisfied that it is more than just a lazy cover of a worship song sung so many times before.

'How Long O Lord' meanwhile is below par, mostly because of its percussion section. It's way too loud for this kind of song and this kind of subject (being forsaken by God). Clearly the percussionist was getting carried away in recording, or the producer forgot to turn the volume down when putting the mix together and mastering the album. 'Sing To The Lord' is just as inferior, thought on this occassion it is because it feels too much like a rehashed worship song. It's got an acoustic guitar with regular chords, it sounds like it's being played with a rictus on its player's face, and - worst of all - it has some terrible harmonies which jar awfully.

It is a welcome relief, then, that we finish on 'Here Is Love'. Yes, it's another worship song; but yes, Fitzgibbon makes it her own. Doing the first verse in Gaelic is... sublime, even before you hear it confirmed in her voice. A beautiful song in its own right, it is lifted onto a different plane by these Celtic touches. It may be the longest track (at 5:40), but you certainly won't be bored. You might even be prompted to join in, even if reaching her registers is a physical impossibilty.

So many albums in Christian music suffer from a profound and perpetual cheesiness - their music, and their lyrics in particular, are so oblique and repetitive that they alienate all but the seasoned evangelical. Devoted, like so much of Celtic music, goes against the flow. It may be uneven in places - especially in the final third - but it's stunningly beautiful, and very well-produced. This is exactly how Christian music should be - honest, sophisticated, and not in the least sense cheesy. Not all of these songs are suited to church worship, but all are superbly well-constructed. True, compared to the likes of Iona, Devoted falls short from a musical perspective - compared to the works of Dave Bainbridge, the melodies here are quite flatlined. But Devoted still stands as one of the finest Christian records made in the last decade.

3.83 out of 5

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