It’s a pretty easy case to make that Sandi Patty is the finest contemporary gospel singer of her generation.
Only one other female singer outsold her — Amy Grant, but she was more singer/songwriter-oriented and couldn’t hold a candle to Patty vocally. The only artistic rivals she ever remotely had — Karla Worley and Cynthia Clawson — are pretty much forgotten footnotes. She easily outsang all the men too and often outsold them. So far-reaching was her ’80s heyday that even a kids’ album she released in 1989 spent a whopping 24 weeks as the top-selling gospel album in the country.
With Patty currently on her final tour (no D.C.-area dates announced as yet) and her farewell album “Forever Grateful” just out, it’s the beginning of the end of an era. The singer, a 59-year-old five-time Grammy winner and Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame inductee, is going out with a bang and while this is certainly preferable to so many contemporary gospel acts who seem to just fall off the face of the earth, it’s a bittersweet season.
The good news is that after years of mediocre covers-heavy albums like “Everlasting” (2013) and “Songs for the Journey” (2008), with “Grateful” she finally tackles mostly new material. It pales compared to her classic ‘80s work on albums like “Morning Like This” (1986) and “Make His Praise Glorious” (1988), but it’s easily her finest such effort since 2003’s “Take Hold of Christ.” Long-time producer Greg Nelson is back and with writing credits on four tracks, it’s Patty’s most self-penned effort ever.
It’s also Patty’s most stylistically diverse effort in years. “Anthem of Praise” is a sturdy church number by Patty, Michael W. Smith and David Hamilton that features a soaring melody and the kind of worshipful lyrics Patty has long been known for.
“Alleluia (Glory, Honor, Majesty)” is a classically flavored worship aria. “All I Got to Do” is black gospel and the family effort “Farther Along” is a Southern Gospel standard Patty has known all her life. She performed it years ago on her “Le Voyage” tour, but had never recorded it til now.
Three simple acoustic ballads — “In the In Between,” “Song of the Redeemed” and the title cut — are just so-so. They’re lovingly sung and suit Patty’s low register fairly well. Despite their sincerity, though, none are especially memorable. The title track is the strongest of the three. A simple prayer, it becomes something of a sonic bookend to the title cut of her first major label effort “Sandi’s Song” 37 years ago.
“It was not the symphonies or sold-out stages/I always found you in the quiet spaces/this is my song for you/this is the one thing I can bring/you’ve taken all that’s broken, every bruise/and handed me a song to sing.”
Another three cuts are remakes of earlier material. An impressive lineup of fellow singers such as Kristin Chenoweth, Natalie Grant, Nicole C. Mullen, her old touring singers First Call and Russ Taff join her “We Are the World”-style on the old warhorse “Love in Any Language.” The arrangement is faithful — it’s the vocal colors that give it punch. It’s the material of a thousand church choir renditions and holds up well.
“Praise Medley” features Patty classics like “Let There Be Praise” and “Hosanna” in a medley she’s been using in practically every concert she’s given in the last 15 years. With such heavy live use, it feels a bit worn into the ground but the Jay Rouse arrangement featuring a delightful new orchestration by Phillip Keveren is still an efficient way to cover a lot of classic ground quickly.
Patty’s husband Don Peslis and several of their highly talented adult children join her on the Steven Curtis Chapman-penned “Love Will Be Our Home,” a song that hasn’t been sung live since her 1989 tour. Perhaps it was too much of a reminder of strained times to sing it for a long time — Patty was married to someone else when she originally recorded it. But enough time has passed that we’re able to take it again at face value and the harmonies are rich and varied here.
There are a few disappointments. Overall, the whole affair feels just a bit slight, especially for a farewell album. Ten all-new songs with the remakes used as bonus cuts would have given the album a more robust overall feel. A new duet with long-time partner Larnelle Harris is a noticeable absence, especially since their last collaboration (“Then Came the Morning” from his 2013 album) didn’t light the world on fire the same way their classic ‘80s material did. One more barn-burner for the ages would have been nice. And where are all the classic cuts like “Via Dolorosa” and “More Than Wonderful” she’s recorded with fans on cruises over the last couple years?
While Patty delivers convincingly on the aforementioned low-key ballads, why so much of that? Though she’s almost always stayed in the pop vein stylistically, Patty’s voice is capable of operatic thunder and it’s held up well. Though the bell-like effortlessness of her early years has matured, the range and oomph are all still there (they were on fabulous display last November at her D.C. concert, the closing night of her “Everlasting Tour”). Why waste time on quiet, tender little ballads like “Song of the Redeemed” when you could be raising the roof? It’s a head scratcher that has plagued many of Patty’s choices and was especially chronic in the ‘90s.
It will never happen, especially now, but I would have loved to have heard Patty do something truly classical like the fabulous “Divine Redeemer” album soprano Christine Brewer just released with organist Paul Jacobs (who’ll be at the Kennedy Center March 16, by the way). Patty only ever flirted with the classics on occasional Christmas-type efforts but she could have pulled off these works by Bach, Handel, Puccini and Gounod magnificently and it’s a shame she never really sunk her teeth into the classical canon.
On some level, I get it. That was just never her thing (she famously lampooned classical-style singing on her live 1983 album). A 2011 richly orchestrated album of Broadway standards — not particularly my thing — was one of her strongest efforts of recent years. But when you have a voice that could blow all the Celine Dions, Lady Gagas, Barbra Streisands and even (in her prime) Julie Andrewses of the world out of the water without breaking a sweat, one sort of yearns to have had heard her take on more substantive material at least once — sort of like when Katharine Hepburn played Shakespeare in the ‘50s. The few times she dabbled in it — Handel passages on her ’83 Christmas album and “The New Young Messiah” or her a cappella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” at her D.C. show last November — left me salivating for more.
Ultimately, though, the album is something for which to be “Grateful.”