MercyMe’s previous album Welcome to the New was one of the strongest albums of 2014, with a terrific balance of energy and heart, and compelling, cohesive thematic focus. How do you follow that up? By doing the same thing again.
To be clear, Lifer is not just a repeat of Welcome to the New. The themes are a little bit different, and the music, while clinging to some of the same motifs, has a fresh feel to it. In simple terms, MercyMe is doing the same thing, but different. Mostly, they stick to that formula that has made their previous albums so successful in the Contemporary Christian scene. MercyMe may not be the most innovative Christian band, but they are among the most consistent. And like their previous efforts, this album is consistently and reliably compelling.
The album kicks off with a considerable amount of energy, with the title track’s Jazz- and funk-infused pop sound. After that song, however, the energy dissipates to a certain extent, settling into the familiar upbeat yet mellow tone. That’s the feel of much of the album, including “You Found Me,” “Grace Got You,” and “Even If.” MercyMe is best when they do the former, and it’s unfortunate that this level of energy is found so seldomly on the album. They only fully return to it for “Happy Dance,” the eighth of the album’s ten songs. But the latter still works well, even if it puts them more within the run-of-the-mill mainstream of the genre. “Hello Beautiful” and “Best News Ever” are particularly catchy using this framework. And it is worth mentioning that, while I enjoy the more energetic tracks more, the more mellow sound does fit better with what the album is doing thematically.
The vast majority of Contemporary Christian albums can be lumped into one of two categories: emulating a successful secular artist, or making straightforward worship albums. This album falls into the latter category, with the vast majority of these songs being celebrations of newfound salvation and redemption. Examples are plentiful. “Best News Ever,” for example, says “What if I were the one to tell you/That the fight’s already been won.” The title track, despite it’s pop/rock energy, is perhaps the most worshipful song on the album, singing “As long as my heart is beating/And my lungs are breathing/I’ll keep on singing for you.” The album’s sheer joy is almost unrelenting. Not only is there a song that’s actually titled “Happy Dance,” but “Grace Got You” indicates, at least in the moment, that Christians are extremely happy and joyful all of the time.
That’s balanced out a little bit by the album’s most contemplative song, “Even If.” This song embraces a more difficult idea that too few Christian songs do: the possibility of God answering “no” to your prayer, saying “It’ll all go away if you just say the word/But even if you don’t/My hope is you alone.” Too often Contemporary Christian music is at danger of presenting Christianity much the same way the more shallow Christian films do: that Christians are happy, carefree people without any struggles with sin or life crises. While MercyMe certainly spends a lot more time on the positives, it’s nice to see an acknowledgement of the more difficult parts of life as a Christian.
A second thematic moment that stood out to me comes in “Ghost,” a slow and contemplative song on the role of the Holy Spirit (“Holy Ghost” in this song) in the Christian’s life. But far from some ethereal, overwhelming happiness, the Holy Spirit here plays a more “haunting” role. There’s the emphasis on the pleasant effects of spiritual guidance, with the lines “Lead me through the darkness/Lead me through the unknown,” but there are also challenges to our sinful selves, with lines like “Holiness keeps haunting me/You want my hope, my peace.” The song is certainly hopeful, but, at moments, bringing out the apparent irony of the analogy.
Like their previous albums, Lifer is optimistic, upbeat, and immersed in affirming Christian theology. It’s an effective and catchy worship album, spanning from celebrations of redemption to ruminations on the Holy Spirit to faith in the face of the problem of evil. With that said, I can’t help but wish that MercyMe, with all of their songwriting skill and artistry, would make an album that’s less typical and more experimental. Lifer checks all of the boxes, but leaves us with much the same as most other worship albums, and doesn’t set itself apart as much as I would like.
None of that is to say that it’s a bad album. Much to the contrary, I enjoy it quite a bit. Not every album has to be a groundbreaking miracle. But it’s not very different from Welcome to the New. They’ve essentially done the same thing again. That they’ve done the same thing again and it is still enjoyable speaks well of their consistency. But I also hope for a new, more challenging direction for them in the future.