12 Hymns, Recast

King of Love
By Kate Eaton. Bandcamp. $15

Review by David Heetderks

This album markets itself as “a collection of hymns arranged with instrumentation and vocals that carry the listener across centuries and continents.” This pitch undersells the contents: Eaton selects 12 hymns roughly centered on themes of Christ’s kingship and mercy and often radically transforms the tunes, sometimes to the point of nearly re-composing them. Performing with her is a team of Colorado-based singer-songwriters and folk musicians representing multiple cultures, and they often put the hymns in a new light.

When Eaton sings of Christ’s kingship in stern 19th-century language, accompanied by a Turkish oud or American hammered dulcimer, the message that he reigns over all cultures of the world is driven home. When a song proclaiming “God is love, and where true love is, God himself is there” appears after a recording of an African man discussing what it means to understand divine love in the midst of genocide, Western listeners are challenged to meditate on what the proclamation means in the midst of suffering unfamiliar to most.

The album is weaker when it loses sight of the hymn tunes and focuses on the atmospheric aspects of the worship experience — occasionally overstuffing the songs with instruments and engaging in less unique, synthesizer-heavy introductory longueurs. But at its best it places the hymn tunes, ably carried by Eaton’s confident and unaffected lead vocals, firmly in the center, for a dialogue with the rest of the ensemble. Standout instrumental performances include engrossing grooves created by a piano and Turkish plucked instruments in “We Walk By Faith” and “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High.” Anyone seeking a contemporary mode of worship that goes beyond shoehorning hymns into well-worn praise-music idioms ought to pay attention to this album.

David Heetderks is assistant professor of music theory at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

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