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Her Hymns: A Review of Audrey Assad’s “Inheritance”

February 15, 2016


Audrey Assad’s new album, Inheritance, opens with a song that is over 1,000 years old. Granted, the music is new, but the text of “Ubi Caritas” is ancient, although it sounds more Celtic than Gregorian. Sung entirely in Latin, much of the ecclesial profundity of this hymn may be lost on the listener: “As we are gathered into one body/ beware, lest we be divided in mind/ Let evil impulses stop/ let controversy cease.” Yet even without the translation, Assad’s haunting vocals would assure you of something serious and beautiful and holy. On her Pledge Music page Assad wrote, “I began this record with ‘Ubi Caritas’ because it felt like the perfect way to begin a collection of songs that shaped up to be a love note from me to the Church.” Perhaps more than a love note, Inheritance is Assad’s mixtape to the Church, and fortunately for us, it went public on Friday.

Assad grew up in the Plymouth Brethren community, which is where she learned to sing, but she became a Catholic when she was nineteen. She told CBN back in 2013 why she became Catholic: “I always found it really beautiful-looking and sounding and smelling, all the different rituals and aesthetics of the churches and architecture. Then, as I got older and started reading a lot of theology and exploring the faith of Christianity, I found myself enamored with the oldness more than anything.” Inheritance is, therefore, a collection of songs that Assad literally inherited from both the Protestant and Catholic hymn traditions, along with two original songs that she co-wrote with (fellow Catholic) singer-songwriter Matt Maher.

Speaking of aesthetics, the album design of Inheritance consists of four colors: white, gold, red, and blue, which are the primary colors of medieval art. In the ceilings of gothic churches and in images of Jesus and Mary there is often a symbolic interplay of the colors red (human nature) and blue (divine nature), which speak to the mystery of the Incarnation. That same red and blue interplay is contained in the design of the album cover, along with gold (divine light) and white text (purity). Whether or not Assad had all that in mind when working on the album design I do not know, but it’s there nonetheless. Tradition is like that. It gets so deep in your blood and your bones that it marks your vision and your way of being. Good hymns, of course, do the very same thing.

It would be a grave mistake to think of Inheritance as a cover album. Take for instance, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, a traditional hymn with which most Christians are familiar. Assad’s version begins not with an organ, but with soft, yet powerful percussion and then a couple of Loreena McKennitt-sounding cries, before her voice glides gracefully into the first verse. The contemporary instrumentation embodies the ancient text, and one can imagine the sun rising through the mist as Assad sings, “Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.” And that seems to be a major mission of this record, to re-present the hymn tradition to a new generation of listeners, and to an older generation, to offer a fresh iteration of Christian classics. 

At the Second Vatican Council, there were two major movements, ressourcement and aggiornamento. The ressourcement movement was concerned with returning to the sources, particularly to the Church Fathers, in order to be firmly re-grounded in the Christian tradition in all its richness, beauty, and wonder. It was a way of looking back and learning from the past in order to inform the present and future. The aggiornamento movement was concerned with updating and modernizing. It looked to appropriate Christianity to the modern world and to avoid institutional stagnation. Like so many things Catholic, ressourcement and aggiornamento are not mutually exclusive. They are contraries, but they are not contradictory. They work together to give us the fullness of truth, just like justice and mercy, body and soul, faith and reason, scripture and tradition, dying and rising, matter and form, clergy and laity, and faith and works. Inheritance is a record in the Catholic both/and tradition, in that it reaches back to the richness of Christian hymn heritage and then appropriates classic hymns in a way that they become something new, while essentially remaining ever what they are.

On “Be Thou My Vision”, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, and “It Is Well With My Soul” this ever ancient, ever new dynamic is exactly what you experience. Assad brilliantly takes on songs that most of us have been singing our entire lives and somehow she makes us hear them again as if we were hearing them for the first time. Maybe it’s her seraphic voice that makes these hymns so rich, or perhaps it’s the instrumental arrangements, which are perfectly and appropriately minimal. Or maybe it’s that Assad intentionally left enough space on each track for one more voice, and maybe that’s Assad’s invitation to her listener. In other words, as much as the hymns on Inheritance are for your listening pleasure, they are also songs of praise and are meant to be sung, not just by Assad, but by the whole Church. These hymns are not just what she received as an inheritance, but they have also been entrusted to her to pass on as an inheritance to her audience. That’s how a tradition works.

Assad adds to the hymn tradition with two originals that she wrote with her friend Matt Maher, “New Every Morning” and “Even Unto Death”. The former is especially apropos for this Year of Mercy, as the lyrics trace salvation history, from the beginning of Creation, to the Incarnation, to the cross of Calvary, with a reassuring chorus of “Your mercies are new/ your mercies are new/ new every morning.” Indeed, Christ makes all things new, and I’m predicting that this track will soon be a favorite of praise and worship leaders, particularly for those music ministers who play for Festivals of Praise, XLTs, and any form of Eucharistic Adoration with young people that employs musical accompaniment. “Even Unto Death” is a song of a lover to a lover – it’s a love song to Jesus. It’s a testimony of faithfulness, hope, and promise written by one who has suffered, and who knows that the life of faith can be perilous and difficult, to one who has suffered, died, and has risen again. It’s a litany of love.

My only real criticism of Inheritance is that it’s not a double album. I realize that eleven tracks are generous, but after listening to this record over the past week, I wonder what Assad would be able to do with hymns like “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”, or “Creator of the Stars of Night”. But again, perhaps that was part of Assad’s plan from the beginning. Maybe down the line she’ll record an Inheritance II, or maybe she’ll inspire a new generation of artists to revisit the richness of the Christian hymn tradition in order to accompany the Church into the future. Either way, for now, we have her hymns, and we ought to be grateful. I know I am.