Music Review: Inheritance by Audrey Assad
Audrey Assad’s album, Inheritance, reviewed by Nick Gross
As a child, American Christian singer-songwriter Audrey Assad learnt to sing four-part harmonies without musical accompaniment in a Plymouth Brethren community.
Her fourth studio album, Inheritance, is her tribute to this tradition, and an attempt to build something new from it. Assad is part of an emerging group of artists introducing a new generation to the theological richness and emotional maturity of old hymns through new melodies and arrangements.
Inheritance is not the kind of music I would normally seek out. For this reason, I asked an Assad-fan-friend of mine, Tom, for advice. He listed a few things about Assad: she is a charismatic Catholic-convert mystic who emphasises God’s holiness, unfathomableness and grace, and who has produced a wide range of work, including a side-project in atmospheric electropop.
Inheritance shares the same wistful thread of Assad’s other material. This comes from slow tempos, reverb, dark synths and martial drums. While her arrangements are very layered, Assad’s vocals stay simple and unadorned. The songs often begin with just her voice and little accompanying instrumentation, communicating a fragile, confessional honesty.
Album opener ‘Ubi Caritas’ captures the solemnity of the Gregorian chant while raising the spookiness a few notches with a new lilting melody, dark violins and battle-drums. This track give you a sense of the album’s tone: quiet contemplation tinged with both sadness and hope – a reflection of how Assad creates her music as a soundtrack to prayer. But I think it also squares with my friend Tom’s observations about her preoccupation with the mystical otherness of God.
Beauty is very evident here, both in the source material and Assad’s voice and arrangements. The hymns are balanced with two original compositions by Assad and a Canadian collaborator Matt Maher.
‘Even unto Death’ is her response to a recent martyrdom in the Middle-East. Her father was a Syrian refugee, so this region is close to her heart.
Another particularly memorable composition of hers, “New Every Morning”, is built around the contrast between the beginning of sin and the mercies that God shows us every day.
But there’s plenty of respite from Inheritance’s emotional weight. ‘How Can I Keep from Singing?’ has a relaxed, sunny feel. The simplicity of ‘It is Well with My Soul’, sung in choral harmony, is another standout, and the closest reflection of Assad’s musical heritage, ‘Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus’, allows plenty of scope for the melody and harmonies to shine.
In contrast, ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ is the most processed. Vocals submerge in a brooding mix, with snatches of rattling strings and tom-toms. At points like these I wonder if the cinematic colour of Inheritance overshadows the lyrics.
Assad has purposely avoided faithful or “pretty” renditions. She says: “I had to make something both bright and dark-coloured honestly with my own doubts and weaknesses, so that the Lord who inspired these songs could be even more visible in it.”
It seems odd to change a song’s arrangement to the point that it almost runs counter to the intent of the original, such as when a sombre shade is cast over lines written as praise and celebration.
There is surely a risk that more culturally engaged Christians may gravitate towards the darker, more introspective realities of faith and forget to give equal weight to joy and assurance.
These things aside, Inheritance is both meaningful and affecting. Through the lens of some of our richest hymns, it gives an honest sense of a believer’s heart holding tightly to God’s grace and promises in times of trouble and doubt. It’s worth a listen, and it’ll help you remember some of those wise old lines.
Nick Gross is a graphic designer, who attends Crossroads Presbyterian Church, Hobart.