Aaron Shust, This Is What We Believe - as reviewed by the Phantom TollboothFour albums and a half decade since he penned the number one song of the year, Aaron Shust is still trying to top his daunting debut album. Is his latest effort up to the task?



2006 was very good to Aaron Shust. In January of that year, his second single climbed into the lower reaches of the Top 20 – hardly an earth-shattering accomplishment until one considers the fact that the single managed this feat nearly a month before ever seeing the light of day on Christian radio. The track, as most savvy CCM enthusiasts have already guessed, is "My Savior, My God," an ingratiatingly catchy, folk-tinged tune which eventually topped virtually every Christian pop chart, became iTunes most downloaded Christian pop cut of 2006 and netted Shust Song of the Year honors at the 2007 Annual GMA Dove Awards. When the dust finally settled, "Savior" had spent over seven months in the Christian Hit Radio (CHR) Top 5 and single-handedly transformed the now-ubiquitous Pittsburgh native from a virtual unknown into a household name amongst the members of the inspirational pop-loving crowd.

Perhaps in a deliberate attempt to sidestep being defined by his unlikely initial success, Shust began a slow but steady migration from his early folk/pop inclinations into more purely pop-oriented territory. Nowhere is this trend more evident than on his latest effort. The gently meandering, semi-ambient anthem, "Never Been a Greater Love," is a textbook example of this trend, falling somewhere between the contemporary worship of Chris Tomlin and the radio-friendly pop of Sanctus Real and MercyMe. The similarly pleasing mid-tempo pop ballad "Wondrous Love" is the sort of composition that could well have appeared on any of the albums by the post-John James/pre-Michael Tait version of the Newsboys. On the ever-so-slightly-harder-edged end of the spectrum, "Greater is He" runs parallel to the AC-inclined soft rock favored by artists like Jeremy Camp and Third Day.

Of course, it goes without saying that the move to more conventional pop/rock material is hardly problematic, in and of itself. The trouble lies in the fact that the better part of the songs on the new project lack the requisite hooks and melody necessary to lodge them into the average listener's memory once they've stopped playing. Exceptions to this rule do exist. The infectious late '60s/early '70s sunshine pop sheen that covers "Risen Today" renders the irresistibly lilting piece a hands-down winner. Likewise, the minimalism employed on the beautiful, semi-ethereal "God So Loved the World" is an absolutely perfect complement to the piano-based ballad's utterly gripping sense of reverence. And Shusts's rich, slightly breathy singing voice helps to inject the proceedings with a certain element of distinctiveness. Unfortunately, though, the better part of his vocals are placed against an overly generic musical backdrop that renders their contribution mostly moot.

On the lyrical front, the wording of Believe only serves to reinforce its musical shortcomings. Consisting mainly of brief snippets of scripture stitched together and repeated multiple times, it's hard to criticize the content of songs themselves. That said, this sort of construction leaves a good bit to be desired in the way of artistic creativity and, as often as not, comes across as merely repetitive. In Shust's defense, the new record doesn't qualify as an out and out letdown by any stretch of the imagination. Compared to that which came before it, though, the latest album, pleasant as it is, still comes across as a muted reflection of his superior former works.


- Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth (10-05-2011)