There is a compelling narrative surrounding “Amazing Grace” to begin with. The mythology suggests that the lyricist — slave trader and all-around bad guy John Newton — found Jesus, renounced his sickening business, and penned the poem as a response to God’s divine and redeeming grace. Whether or not that exact story happens to be word-for-word factual is questionable, but it’s more or less irrelevant. “Amazing Grace,” eventually set to William Walker’s popular “New Britain” tune, grew over the subsequent 200-odd years into one of the most recognizable songs in the world. It is a staple of churches of all ethnicities, denominations, languages, and cultures and is even known by a fair proportion of non-religious individuals. So when Chris Tomlin, a 30-something contemporary “worship leader” (one part cantor, one part pastor, one or two parts rock star) from Texas, to take on the challenge of adding a new flavor to the timeless hymn, it should be no surprise that people were wary.
Tomlin’s version of the hymn represents the musical mark of an entire generation of evangelical Christians. He is a leader in a musical and spiritual scene concerned with taking a millennia-old faith and renewing its relevance and importance for a new day. While that often means developing legitimately new and distinctive ideas to address unprecedented issues of faith, it can just as often mean a straightforward adaptation of terms. In the case of “Amazing Grace” and other praise music, that can take the shape of a newer — and ideally a slightly less stodgy — musical and lyrical vocabulary. Tomlin, most likely out of respect for the original piece and seeking to ease his listeners into his addition to the song, chooses not to depart from the feel of the lyrics in a significant way; his use of “ransom’d” is an especially clear example of new material consistent with the old feel. And musically, this piece lacks any of the edgy electronica- or hip-hop- or punk-influenced characteristics that much contemporary Christian music makes a point of including in order to grab the attention of today’s youth. In that sense its middling, inoffensive nature stands as a compelling case for why even the most traditionalist worshippers ought to at least consider giving this new generation of worshippers a chance: maybe they’re not so different after all. The piece then is at the forefront of an ongoing campaign to shift the balance of Christian music.
It’s difficult to say for certain how Tomlin’s dynamics and performance compare to those of the original song. For one, the song is performed at least slightly differently every time a church sings it. Often, though, the third verse will traditionally be relatively quiet, followed by perhaps a key change and a renewed fortissimo at the final, victorious chorus. However, in what is almost certainly a significant artistic statement, Tomlin eschews that triumphant chorus and ends quietly at a mezzo piano or perhaps a piano. Adding to the difference is the most radical departure from the original composition, the brand new chorus. It gives the piece a much more contemporary feel, breaking up what can at times feel like the monotony of a hymn with only one sequence of chord changes. Contemporary music tends to have distinct verses and catchy choruses, and modern praise and worship music especially is known for its soaring, infectious, often predictable hooks, fraught with melodrama and a sweeping, epic sound.
And that is not necessarily to say that such a feel is out of place in this song. Keeping in mind the original story of the piece and the circumstances under which the revamp was commissioned — as the title track of a biopic telling the story of anti-slave crusader William Wilberforce — the subject matter perhaps calls for just such an over-the-top character. The textures of the song are meant to absolutely cry earnestness and praise, from the intimate harmonic embellishments Tomlin throws into his chords, to his I’m-singing-this-like-it’s-to-a-girl-but-actually-it’s-for-Christ soft-rocker raspy belt, to the unseen black gospel singer thrown in the background (it is, after all, a movie about freeing an entire people). At its peak about three minutes in, the piece carries all the markers of praise music at its climax, but Tomlin shows at least some restraint when he chooses not to escalate the song ad infinitum and ends it promptly (or maybe he simply conforms to another worship music stereotype) and intimately, even dropping the gentle “ooh’s” of his background singers.
Next week, we’ll move from thinking about this song specifically to thinking about its place in the wider Christian musical tradition.