Let me open by saying that I have every album Michael has ever made. That's right...everything from "Project" up through this current offering. He was my inspiration to continue piano lessons as a kid, and was an early inspiration in songwriting. I've seen him in concert several times and think he is a genuine guy and a great entertainer.
The Smitty/Wayne Kirkpatrick songwriting duo was incredible. The lyrics fit the music, and still carried a moving message. Since Michael has started writing with others, I think the songwriting has suffered. Musically this album is rich and powerful...which is Michael's work, no doubt. But the lyrics just don't fit anymore. It's like he is trying to get these deep messages across, then copying someone's words onto music that doesn't complement it. On Wonder (Not Far Away) Michael is talking the verses, "Everybody has enough to bear / and everyone feels the strain / there's a lot that really isn't fair / but it isn't more than you can take." Not a bad topic for a song, but you can't just take lyrics and say them over some music. Michael did a similar song a decade ago with Kirkpatrick lyrics called "Give Me Love" but the quirky lyrics fit the rapid-fire delivery style. Not so with Wonder.
There is just a lot of "talking" going on, and not singing. The message on "Leave" is lost because there is really no melody at all. It's like reading a poem with music behind it. The trick to pop songwriting is to take words and craft them into a soaring melody - the words and the melody should be inseparable. Think of Michael's earlier works: Place in This World, Give it Away (perfect lyrical fit with that song), Secret Ambition, I'll Lead You Home, Never Been Unloved. These songs soar because the lyrics are lifted up by the melodies.
I appreciate that Smitty is trying to stay relevant in the Christian music scene, and that he is working with a variety of artists (Leeland, Matthew West). But I think he shines the most when it's just him and the piano, cutting to the core of the song. The best song on Wonder is "Welcome Home." Beautiful melody and piano chording. If he came out with an album of vocals and piano, all written by him, I can guarantee it would be his best work in a decade.