Reviewed by James Howard-Smith
I don't know if Christian music produces less concept albums, on average, than non-Christian music, but this new work by Matthew West feels quite distinctive. If an album of Christian songs is thought to be necessarily conceptual, the one behind 'The Story Of Your Life' is stronger and more deliberate than most, coming by way of a private songwriting retreat and an appeal for life stories from fans. After two introductory songs, the remaining nine are based more or less directly on these stories. Sometimes the result is a straightforward worship song; other times the subject comes out more overtly. One of the less general tracks is the wistful "Two Houses", which, taking an odd direction for a pop song, goes socially retroactive and condemns the rise of divorce. In "Strong Enough" (a song more affecting than it deserves to be with its easy pop sound) West answers a girl wondering why God has given her as much as 11 surgeries to deal with by quoting his favourite Bible verse, the hopeful message that when strength comes from God it is enough to do all things. Ostensibly, though, Matthew is singing about himself in this, and he even did on "Two Houses", taking the stories as inspiration and producing something personal. But he breaks from this approach with the twosome "Survivors" and "Broken Girl", tracks eight and nine. On the former he celebrates cancer sufferers who have reached remission - "'Cause you're a survivor, nothing can stop you now, nothing can back you down" - and on the latter he's more clearly the preacher, telling us, "This is a song for the broken girl", then telling that girl, "You're not the worthless they made you feel. There is a love they can never steal, and you don't have to stay the broken girl." The lyrics are smarter on number nine and the feeling more palpable, escaping the clichés of the previous track and it's rather annoying and empty "ooing". The song that shines brightest is mostly likely "The Reason for the World", which feels genuinely wise; it also stands taller than the others being free of the awkwardness of addressing a particular topic, and would have made a better closing track than the one West actually chose. This is, overall, an admirable project - quite possibly Matthew West's best so far.
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For his new record, Matthew West did something unusual: He turned the microphone around. Rather than write about what he was experiencing in his life, he asked his fans to submit the stories of their lives.
When he opened up this opportunity to his fans, the message spread quickly – and soon almost 10,000 stories were submitted. Radio stations, media outlets, and retailers caught the vision and helped spread the word of this unique album.
The stories gave Matthew a window into what his fans had experienced in their lives. And they covered a wide range of human experiences and emotions. From joy to sorrow, struggle to victory, and life and death. The song Family Tree describes how Christ gives us a new identity and legacy and life, while One Less chronicles the joy of adoption and helping those most in need. Broken Girl tragically recounts the countless stories Matthew received about sexual abuse – and describes the healing and redemption that Christ promises. My Own Little World perhaps serves as a capstone to the entire album, describing a person who lived in their own “little world” and then was awakened to the bigger picture of need and God’s work in the world.