When Philippa Hanna released her latest album Stained Glass Stories, it was with nervous anticipation that I pressed play. The sometime-Country singer-songwriter has journeyed into the world of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) to make a worship album for the first time. Such a move doesn’t feel forced or contrite given her past projects, emerging as they do out of a heart that wishes to encourage and empower rather than please people. But I still felt anxious that the unique spark that makes her music so inspirational would be lost in favour of the subculture’s standardised tropes and stereotypical sounds. In the end, the record fell somewhere in between.
From the first few notes on opening track ‘Freedom Found Me’, I was immediately uplifted. Its rousing Gospel chorus confirmed that the early signs were good. The lyrics offered hope and reassurance alongside a positive sound that felt, well, very Philippa. Even when ‘The Name That Saves’ followed, with a very Hillsong-like framework, there still seemed to be a sprinkling of Hanna magic over it to avoid it descending into cliché. Perhaps it is her wonderful way with lyrics, which ‘My Hope is in the Blood’ displays most successfully here, which prevents Stained Glass Stories from becoming just another worship album. The chorus excels on this third track, not only because of its lyrical mastery but in part because of the slight musical variations that come with each repetition. It keeps the message fresh and emboldens the words with a presence that they fully deserve.
‘Oh The Power’ and ‘You’re Still God’ then cause the album to wane into familiar worship song territory; though the simple statement of the latter holds such weight that, to speak it as truth over my own personal context, it became deeply comforting and emotionally powerful. Yet just as it feels like the album is slipping into safe and average, ‘Everything is Possible’ brings a delightful injection of country-folk with a hint of bluegrass that surprises you with its exciting melody and toe-tapping rhythm. ‘Against All Odds’ continues this sense of originality by displaying the kind of pop and storytelling that mark it as a close cousin of Philippa Hanna’s previous two albums. ‘Loved Me First’ then rounds off this standout section of the record with a beautiful demonstration of country-pop that evokes the spirits of Ingrid Andress and Kelsea Ballerini. The line ‘why do I find myself trying to earn it’ was particularly pertinent for me, a humble reminder of Jesus’ work on the cross.
‘Now to Jesus’ could have been ripped straight from the Hillsong/Bethel manual on how to write a worship song. It creates the kind of tangible spiritual atmosphere that Charismatic Christians will be all-too-familiar with, Hanna transposing the vocals of Darlene Zschech into a performance that, for me, lacks creative spark. I accept my tendency to over-criticise this popular style of worship music, and so perhaps I am being too harsh here. Thankfully, it is the only song on Stained Glass Stories that has little essence of Hanna herself. ‘Trust’ is much more recognisably marked by her musical character, an acoustic effort that again reveals a real aptitude for songwriting. Meanwhile, ‘My Troubled Soul’, originally sung by Robert Critchley, is a heartfelt cover that makes for a nice finish to an album that largely meets my expectations.
Stained Glass Stories succeeds in retaining much of what makes Philippa Hanna such an inspiring and rather unique Christian artist. There are times on this record when she appears to veer into the customary sounds of CCM. But for the most part, she carves her own personality into songs that house a desire to worship Jesus through expressive songwriting, wonderfully-crafted lyrics and, at times, refreshingly different sounds. My quibble with the populist style of mainstream Christian worship music notwithstanding, Stained Glass Stories is an excellent album that marks another exciting chapter in the repertoire of Philippa Hanna.
Stained Glass Stories comes out on 31st July 2020. To purchase it, click here.
Featured Image (C) Philippa Hanna