Amy Grant - The Collection
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As a teenager, I was very much into church, and was accordingly very into Christian rock, or CCM (contemporary Christian music) as it was called at the time. My first-ever concert, for which I won free tickets from a local college radio station, was Steve Camp and DeGarmo & Key (remember them? Their video “666” was one of the first ever banned by MTV, allegedly due to “Satanic” imagery. That’s called irony, kids). But my favorite CCM artist was always Amy Grant; even after I left the church and Christianity for nearly a decade (i.e. my late teens and much of my 20s, thanks in large part to a horrible church pastor telling me I’d go to hell for who I am, but that’s most definitely another story for another time), I secretly loved Amy. Like many, my introduction to Ms. Grant was her 1985 pop crossover Unguarded, which featured the top 40 hit “Find A Way,” which was that oh-so-rarity, a Christian single which crossed the secular divide. The album was—and still is—a solid pop record.
She followed it the next year with The Collection, her first greatest hits compilation. Unbeknownst to most of the secular world, Grant had been releasing albums since 1978, the year of her self-titled debut; by the time of The Collection, she’d released six studio albums, two live ones (the second with, what do you know, DeGarmo & Key as her backing band!), a Christmas album and a Grammy-winning EP (1983’s Ageless Medley, by today’s standards really a maxi-single, and the only item in her catalog that’s out of print). That’s a catalog deep enough that it wasn’t even all represented on her first compilation (two albums were left out), but it sure doesn’t feel as if anything’s missing. If anything, its 17 tracks (15 old ones, 2 new) are almost too much of a good thing. Almost.
The Collection also signaled, whether we realized it or not at the time, the end of the first epoch of Grant’s career. Following its platinum success, she released Lead Me On two years later. That album pointed Grant in a new direction, more folk/rock-oriented and less explicitly pop than her then-recent efforts (ironically, its sound wasn’t all that dissimilar to her earliest work, but with a much more mature gloss on it). After that, she jumped feet-first into the warm, welcoming waters of the pop pool with 1991’s crossover behemoth Heart In Motion, the album whose first single was the #1 smash “Baby Baby” and which featured a further four-count-‘em-four top 20 hits. Since then, she’s mostly busied herself with secular pop albums (and now hosting NBC’s sappier-than-you-knew-possible reality series Three Wishes), save for 2002’s Legacy…Hymns & Faith and its sequel, this year’s Rock of Ages…Hymns & Faith. But you know what? There’s something missing from her secular records, almost as if Grant herself doesn’t quite believe what she’s selling-slash-singing.
The simplest way to gauge this is to listen to The Collection alongside its successor, Greatest Hits 1986-2004. Hits, apart from its two selections from Lead Me On (its soaring title track and the mandolin-rific “Saved By Love”), is comprised solely of her secular singles (including 1986’s icky duet with Peter Cetera, the #1 “The Next Time I Fall”). Compared to Collection selections such as “Find A Way” or the gigantically classic “El Shaddai” (so recognized as part of the worship song canon that Grant re-cut it on Rock of Ages), the likes of “Good for Me” and “The Lucky One” (to say nothing—no, really, please say nothing—of her cover of “Big Yellow Taxi”) sound, more than anything, limp.
On the bulk of her Christian material, particularly once Grant truly found her own voice in the ‘80s (circa 1982’s Age to Age, her first gold [or platinum] album), there’s so much more passion in her voice. Yes, I know that calling an artistic expression “passionate” is often a cop-out—as Chuck Eddy once said, “Calling music ‘intense’ or ‘emotional’ or ‘soulful’ is usually a euphemism for ‘it seems like something I’m supposed to like.” But what I mean by “passion/ate,” in this case, is that Grant seems to take more risks, vocally, on her religious material, from the way she completely lets loose on ‘82’s “I Have Decided” to her almost sultry, in-Bonnie-Raitt’s-ballpark delivery on her new album’s “Anywhere with Jesus.” In contrast, on hits such as “Baby Baby” and “Takes A Little Time,” she tends to play it safe, cooing like a generic pop tart. It sounds as if her strategy on these songs, as such, boils down to “please like me, pop radio.”
With Brown Bannister as her producer—and he still is on her Christian material, co-producing Rock of Ages with Grant’s husband, Vince Gill—Grant had compiled a fairly amazing catalog of CCM by the midway point of the ‘80s. “Find A Way,” for example, is a transcendent single, one whose crossover still befuddles me (yes, I know that hitting #29 doesn’t exactly equal a monster hit, but at the time, the mere notion of a CCM song going top 40 pop was nearly revolutionary). Listen to the way her voice swoops and soars on the lead-up to the chorus, punctuated by a guitar “zip!” The slight echo Bannister puts on Grant’s voice just makes her sense of urgency that much more potent, as well.
Just listen to the way she holds out “to the end” in the chorus of 1984’s “Thy Word,” and hear the strength (I’d say God-given) in/behind her voice. Sure, the faux-symphonic synthesizer part on the song’s bridge sounds a bit dated now, but remember that this was the smack-dab-middle of the ‘80s, and can Bannister (and co-writers Grant and Michael W. Smith—yep, that one; he was Grant’s most frequent co-writer through the decade) really be faulted for that touch? Besides, at other times an effect like that works, such as the synth horn trills on “Emmanuel” (from 1983’s A Christmas Album). Then there’s the slight, almost imperceptible something in Grant’s voice on songs such as “Where Do You Hide Your Heart” and “In A Little While.” Her voice here isn’t quite as strong as it would later become (Grant’s singing has definitely evolved over time), but there’s something to it that just inexplicably seems to imply “I actually care.” And her millions of fans at the time heard and believed—combine that with her forward-thinking songs and arrangements and the fact that she could write songs upon songs destined to become Christian classics, and it seems, in retrospect, that her success was inevitable.
Which, perhaps, it was. When Amy Grant entered the CCM landscape in the late ‘70s, things were fairly moribund, with most female singers cooing sweetly over overproduced adult contemporary/folkie tracks (think Debbie Boone, or for that matter check Grant’s own 1979 “Father’s Eyes”). She was needed, frankly, and thus embraced by legions for which her solid songs, great voice, and simple truths hit home. In contrast, when Grant went full-on “pop top 40” with Heart In Motion, well, she wasn’t needed there. I think she knew it, too, which is why there’s something missing from her secular recordings. When you stand any of those up against just the “Sing Your Praise” segment of her 1983 “Ageless Medley,” that becomes more than clear.