Album Review:
Rebecca St. James' "Transform"

Written: 24 January, 2001

This album came out in October, and I think I bought it in November. I'm not a major fan of Rebecca St. James, although I have enjoyed some of her songs, particularly "Pray" from her previous album. I think Rebecca was the very first modern CCM artist that caught my attention back around 1998 when I saw the cover for her "God" album and was surprised that a Christian could look so cool. Then I remembered seeing the tail-end of her "God" video and being surprised that a Christian video looked that cool. At first glance, she seemed like a Christian version of Alanis Morrisette, singing about God in this kind of desperate whine like the throes of a woman in childbirth, or the flashing tongue of a Lady Lazarus. I wanted to catch that "God" video from the beginning, so that was one of the main reasons I started watching Christian music videos in the first place.

After becoming a little more familiar with Rebecca's music and words (TV appearances, etc.), it was clear that perhaps the only thing she had in common with Alanis was the passion and seriousness she brought to her music. Rebecca came across as a little bit of a goody two-shoes in a way -- for example, including a prayer inside her CDs which she encourages her listeners to pray if they need to "get serious" about Jesus. In her previous album's booklet, she offered her thoughts about the suicide of Kurt Cobain and coldly concluded that his death was the result of his own selfishness. During the talking parts of her concerts, she has told the crowd that she is a virgin and will wait until marriage before having sex. A positive thing, that, and a message that the media should be promoting instead of promiscuity, but there's something that makes me cringe a little to hear a rock star lecturing her audience about private matters. Something about the idea of a performer's career being a "ministry" (as many CCM artists, including Rebecca, call what they do) seems rather off-putting and pompous-sounding. (Kinda like Alanis, come to think of it.)

Anyway, what about Rebecca's new album? Well, it's pretty good, I have to say. At first, I only really listened to the first three songs, which are very listenable and which give you an idea of what to expect from the rest of the album.

The first song "For the Love of God" opens with some symphony music. Rebecca recorded with the London Sessions Orchestra on this album, so their strings enhance many songs with a kind of lush, expansive, and dramatic sound. "For the Love of God" is a kind of fast-paced pop-rock song, a good basic album opener. Miss Angie's husband, Oran Thornton (of the alternative rock band Flick) contributes guitar playing to this track as well as four other songs here. This isn't a guitar heavy album, though, and it sounds to me like they must have mixed out a lot of Oran's guitar work which is normally more noticable (like his guitar work on dc Talk's "Jesus Freak"). Anyway, "For The Love of God" is a good basic pop rock opener and I wouldn't be surprised if it's the second single. So, this song represents the "pop-rock-guitar" type songs on the album, with some lush strings.

The second song is "Reborn" and it represents more the rave/dance music type sound, which there are a few on the album. Rebecca's voice is a bit distorted at times, and I think they might have used that effect that Cher had on her voice in her dance hit, "Believe." (Which, I think, was last year's overused gimmick -- that is, unless one wants to classify the entire teenpop genre as an overused gimmick.) Maybe they messed with Rebecca's voice too much on the dance songs on this album, I don't know. Such gimmickry maybe has the unforseen result of trivializing what Rebecca is singing about. For example, at one point she sings, "You've got to believe that he loves you / enough to give his life..." And the word "life" echoes weirdly like "liiiiiiffffe" which is distracting because it seemed a little more gimmicky than the subject matter deserved -- like if I wrote a techno rave song about the Holocaust and had a part where my voice echoes mechanically about "They killed the Jew-ew-ew-ews," etc. Other than that tiny complaint (which most people probably wouldn't notice unless they are focusing on the lyrics), it's an okay dance song and like practically all of the songs on this album is melodically memorable.

The third song on the album, "Don't Worry" is the album's first single, and is currently the top CCM song according to this month's issue of CCM Magazine. I've actually heard this one on the local Christian FM radio station, which normally doesn't play much music that interests me. It's an okay pop song that somehow reminds me of some other song I must have heard somewhen. It's one of those "I'm walking down the street one day, and here's some descriptions of the characters I see on my way"-type song. The message of this song is a good one for Christians to hear I think, that they shouldn't worry about things so much. I've found that I seem to think about things like my behavior and thoughts and actions and desires moreso as a Christian than I did as an Agnostic, and receiving forgiveness from God for my shortcomings is very important to me. And forgiveness comes from sincerely repenting of my sins and trying not to continue it. Which causes me to wonder if I may be stressing myself out too much in my brain, worrying about stuff that the Atheist, for example, would not bother thinking about, and thus the Atheist ends up having a longer, happier life because he didn't get so worked up "over nothing" (as he may see "sin" being). So, this is a reminder for Christians like myself to not worry so much and just let God handle things.

Anyway, those were the first three songs on the album and the first three that I started off listening to, when I bought the album. Then, lately, I found myself listening more to the next "trilogy" of songs.

The fourth song is called "Merciful" and it's kinda like a prayer but with a lot of symphony strings and drama to it. The song is addressed to God, asking Him to forgive us for disobeying Him. Some listeners may feel that the chorus is repeated too much (it starts up again after having stopped for awhile, and then you wonder when it's ever gonna end), but if you look at it like a prayer, you can get into the idea of the reason for saying it over and over. I remember when I first tried praying, I wasn't sure if I was doing it right, or if I was sincere in my thoughts or just going through the motions, or what, so I found that I'd just keep praying and praying and praying until I was sure I'd gotten past any pretenses or lack of sincerity that I might have been bringing into it. Rebecca is focusing on the mercy of God here, and our need for repentance -- probably two of the most important things to know. And the way that the music sounds is kinda mystical sounding, as befitting a supernatural subject such as God. Also, Rebecca's voice kinda reminds me of Bjork's at times on this song, since it has that kinda breathy childlike quality.

"One" sounds a little more dance, a little more rock, and very listenable. The line about "Come on everybody, gather 'round / Tell me what He's done in your life" reminds me of the contemporary worship service at my church where we do just that.

"Universe" is one of my favorites on the album. Lots of strident symphony strings here, reminiscent of the way Puff Daddy used the driving sound of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." The big symphony sound helps emphasize the huge majesty of God which are reflected in the lyrics: "Its deeper than I can imagine / Higher than the sky is Your love for me." Also some good Rebecca vocals where she has a bit of that wiry Alanis style of singing certain lines, such as "If I make my bed in the depths, You're there." In a way, this whole album might be described as a sort of cross between Alanis and Madonna, if I had to pick any other artists to describe Rebecca's music. In fact, for some reason, Madonna's newest single, "Don't Tell Me" reminds me of the style of some of the songs on "Transform." (Uh, that's a good thing.)

"Wait for Me" is my favorite song on the album. In her note about the song in the CD's booklet, Rebecca writes: "The idea for this song came from letters that I have written to my future husband, that I will one day give to him. I sing it not just to him, but on behalf of young women today, encouraging the future husbands of our generation to stay sexually pure, to wait for us." It's certainly a different sort of message than you will find elsewhere in the pop culture, in movies, in music, etc. In a way, it reminds me of the way in which The Beatitudes of Jesus were turning the values of the world on their head ("Blessed are the poor," etc. when most people take the opposite view of the poor). Rebecca sings, "Keep your loving eyes only for me," a radical notion in a culture that bombards and lures our eyes with sexual images. The idea of refusing to "lust in your heart" over the media's sexual images because you want to save it for your future spouse is considered an unthinkable proposition today. Our society tells us that there's nothing wrong with looking, and corporations make profits by appealing to our basest desires knowing that "sex sells" and never mind the morality. In this song, Rebecca is calling us to raise our standards, to counter the corrupt values of our culture. She acknowledges that we won't always be perfect, singing, "Now I know you may have made mistakes / But there's forgiveness and a second chance / So wait for me darling." This reflects what Rebecca tells her audiences at her concerts, when she says that if someone is no longer a virgin, then they can become a "recycled virgin" by renewing their commitment not to have sex outside of marriage, even if they failed to keep that promise before. Just because someone made a mistake doesn't mean that they should think now, "Well, I'm no longer a virgin now, so I might as well keep having promiscuous sex..."

In her book, "You're the Voice - 40 More Days with God," Rebecca wrote some words which deal with the same subject:

"A few years ago my dad presented me a purity ring, a neat reminder of the commitment I've made to wait until marriage to have sex. I wear it on the ring finger of my right hand. It also lets others know of the commitment I've made to wait. The safest way to maintain purity is to decide prior to temptation to remain pure. My cousin Matt, who is also my age, saw my ring and heard me talk about it. He decided he wanted a physical reminder of his commitment too. So I got to present him with a purity chain, and we had special ceremony with speeches and all! It was so cool. I want to encourage you to keep waiting for the person God has for you. That is absolutely God's way. He designed us, and He knows what's best for us. If God says it, I believe it."

The 8th song on the album is "In Me," which is more of a conventional Christian song in the sense that it's pretty straight-forward both musically and lyrically. The opening lines recall the opening of "God": "You said the words / And made the heavens / You breathed the stars..." etc. The point of this song is expressed in the chorus: "I've got this power [of the Holy Spirit] in me / There is strength to move a mountain, in me / There is faith to walk on water, in me / If I just believe." It's a reminder of the power of God and the power that we can tap into through our faith.

The 9th song is "Lean On," a collaboration between Rebecca and the band Earthsuit. It kinda reminds me of an 80s synthpop dance tune. Sort of like a faster dancier version of Nu Shooz, or whatever.

The 10th song is "All Around Me," co-written by Pete Stewart, former lead singer of Grammatrain. It's one of the songs in the more pop-rock vein as opposed to dance vein.

The penultimate song is "Stand" and it's one of those "this is our time so let's get up and make a change" type songs. Rebecca wrote this song for the "Acquire the Fire" event last year at the Silverdome, which some of the teens from my church went to.

The final song on the album (no hidden tracks this time, unfortunately!) is called "My Hope" and is a kind of gentler, slower song than the rest, perhaps meant as a kind of parting thought to put all the rest in perspective. It's like a love song to God, and Rebecca brings to it the kind of passion and emotion that might be hard for many people to relate to.

Anyway, that's it. Good album. I say "Good" instead of "great" simply because it takes time for me to warm up to the songs and while they are all listenable and accessible, most of them aren't so striking that I'd feel compelled to go play them for someone else.

Probably the one thing I didn't like about this album is that the packaging is kinda uninspiring. For instance, the cover has Rebecca all the way over to the left side, which is where most stores have the CD's price tag and UPC. When you see it at the store, it looks weird because the sticker is covering up the main thing on the cover! Also, most of the photos inside, in the CD booklet, aren't that great. The one when you first open the booklet has a photo of only half of Rebecca, since she's so far over to the side. The photo in the middle of the booklet is printed upside down -- presumably on purpose. There's a cool photo of a backlit Rebecca in the booklet, so her features are all shadowed, but again she's way over to one side so you only see one-half of her. Weird. Other than that, though, I liked this CD.