Bar Exam: Jonathan McReynolds – Make Room (Album)
A One Listen Album Review
Today I’ll be sharing about Jonathan McReynold’s newest project “Make Room.” I’m a big fan of some of Jonathan’s past songs notably “Maintain” and “The Way That You Love Me.” I’m hoping that this project carries the same heart and worshipfulness of his past creations. Without further ado, let’s hit play.
Track 1: “Life Room Anthem” starts with a percussive beat and some (sick) acoustic guitars. “We’ve been turning living rooms into life rooms/ Giving God room with these life tunes/We get too busy living and watching others live…” Jonathan breaks from the ordinary almost immediately and skats over the interlude into the second hook. Dee-1 is featured here. While the music vibes are above the bar and the overall performance as well, I found the theme of this song to be not very accessible. To say “we’ve been doing” something that not everyone is doing, especially when the listener might be new to your context, you can exclude people from connecting with your message.
Let’s Go To Church
The opening of “Great is The Lord” is less raw than we heard on the first song. The background vocals are each panned left and right respectively, which is an interesting choice. As the song grows, the band gets more intricate and adds punches. Not only that, but we also get a key change with each time back through the vamp, resulting in the vocals being in the stratosphere by the end of the song. Topically they’re hitting on the attributes of God as comforter, conqueror, and warrior. Jonathan’s vocals are easy to follow, and this break down after the three minute mark is flames! “He’s just too good to just be good!” C’mon! Let’s go to church. There’s so much to like about this track. It builds at just the right time. This song is tremendous, worshipful, and it’s fun. At one point we get to a false ending and we go back to the “too good” riff, and then hear a surprise mashup with “Gotta Have You.”
“Cycles” starts with a laid back acoustic guitar riff. Jonathan’s ad-libs over the top of that are chilling. The writing on this song in particular is uniquely clever and thoughtful. He’s delivering punchlines that cause me to laugh out loud. “The devil learns from your mistakes/even if you don’t.” Jonathan’s delivery is effortless and confident. Not necessarily in his own ability, but in God’s ability to speak through this art. Jonathan McReynolds is on another level here. DOE delivers the second verse and it’s outstanding as well. They get into some vamping and riffing here and then we have another surprise mashup with “Break Every Chain” that sent my jaw to the floor.
A lot of times with vocalists of Jonathan’s caliber you can get lost in the embellishments and fancy notes. One thing I find about his performances on this project is that his melodies on aren’t too intricate, and on the other hand he still shows that he has freedom to explore all of the space given. This is a perfect example of moderation when it comes to musical stylings. He’s intentional about not leaving the listener behind. The lead melodies are catchy enough that you can stay engaged with the tune and find yourself singing along. Another thing to point out is that while church music can tend to get predictable in dynamic and take itself more seriously than necessary, something refreshing about “Make Room” for me is that the music grows in these songs without being emotionally manipulative. The instrumentation in each song stays at the intensity that is appropriate for the subject matter.
Next we have a talking moment. Jonathan is talking about the different types of people on rollercoasters, explaining that sometimes you’ve got to let go. He then takes us to a reprise of “Cycles” with “Break Every Chain” once again.
“Comparison Kills” has Jonathan singing with almost a hushed voice at the top. This choice is great. It brings you in so that you’re intent on hearing each word. The writing on this song is solid as well, and he even stops to repeat a line once more. “Pressure is hot/With heat come mirages/So you think it’s cool over there/Your thirst is real/But water can’t fill what comparison kills.”
Alright so this next song would be “Exhibit A” of why I would describe this album as semi-live. The loops and even the vocal capture of the Hamiltones at the top of this song, “Graduate” are far more produced than anything we’ve heard thus far. I’m not knocking it, and this hasn’t been marketed as a live album as far as I know, but most of these recordings were captured in a live setting. I’d also note that some of the vocals in the previous track sounded less-than-live. “Graduate” is a song about growing up and moving on. It’s a tough song to have in this spot on the album. There’s so much humanness and soul included when you hear a live performance that hearing a more “canned” recording takes those elements out. There’s a lot of great stuff about this track, but I lost some energy in this song because of that personal disconnect.
We move into “Better” and we’re back to the live sound. This is a very melodic song. Off the charts here. Life is tough, but we can pick ourselves up tomorrow and do better. Jonathan McReynolds often talks about how his music is “Life Music.” He’s not a fan of Christian cliché’s and likes to be blunt, calling a spade a spade. These songs are all great examples of music that is tangible and real. “We’ve all fallen but you can’t stay on the ground/After awhile you start thinking recovery is not an option/…You’re wrong”
The next track is another interlude moment. These breakdowns are off the hook, and the bass player is amazing. We riff around on “Better” for a little bit, move into the old Canton Spirituals song “Clean up,” and then ultimately get thrown into McReynold’s song “Limp.” With features from Latice Crawford and Darrel and Alic Walls, this part of the album is incredibly enjoyable.
The first single that I heard from this project was “I’m Not Lucky, I’m Loved.” It’s a great statement about how when you’re part of God’s plan His love is proved just through your ability to live life. The musical textures throughout this song are outstanding. Especially on this second verse. This song is mashed up with “Jesus Loves Me” and I couldn’t be more happy.
The title track, “Make Room,” begins with vocal and piano on the downbeat. I love how the piano follows the vocal melody. This is a challenging song asking the question “what are we doing in order to give space for Jesus in our life?” The truth is if He’s really Lord, we can’t move Him. We can however move all the other stuff out of the way. It’s also a prayer asking for God to destroy us, to make a mess so that only He remains. There’s so much in the way that when we clear it out it’ll be life changing. “I find space for what I treasure/I make time for what I want/I choose my priorities/Jesus you’re my number one”
These interludes on this project are just as much of a treat as the songs themselves. Travis Greene, Brian Courtney Wilson and Anthony Brown are featured on this one.
Jonathan keeps rolling with the solid worship tunes. “Lover Of My Soul” is a hit from the start, and the Chorus is probably the catchiest of the album. “What I lack You are full of/Where I’m broken You are whole/What I’m doubting you are sure of/I’ll trust the lover of my soul.” I can’t say enough good things about the performances on this album. You shouldn’t be surprised but these vocals are top notch. From the introduction of the melodies to the ad-libs and the “follow me” attitude you hear in his song leadership, all of this is exceptional.
We conclude the album with a “Blessed Be Your Name” type of song. On “Smile” Jonathan is talking about being content in Christ no matter the situation. This track seemed to fall back at the bar for me. Something was missing here that I can’t put my finger on at the moment.
As a hip-hop head I find myself yearning for deep and challenging lyrics even when I listen to other genres. If you think that it’s difficult to find lyrically dense artists in church music, you just haven’t heard artists like Jonathan McReynolds. He has a way of giving meaning, emotion, and soul to his music. Considering the decisions he makes in his songwriting and performance, it’s all exemplified well on “Make Room.”
Overall Rating: Above The Bar