Commissioned – Matters of the Heart (1994)

It’s hard to select a Commissioned album for classic review. Formed at the cusp of the 1980s, the standard of this Gospel super-group’s back catalogue is so high, any one of their pre-1999 albums could be analysed in depth for their timeless appeal.

Nevertheless, 1994’s Matters of the Heart is noteworthy for a few reasons. It was the first album recorded without erstwhile mainstay Keith Staten; he of the operatic style that should have been out of place in a soul outfit but somehow strangely fitted in.

It was the last studio album that Gospel legend Fred Hammond, one of the original and most pre-eminent members of the line up, recorded with his old band. Hammond had already released at least one solo project at this stage-‘I am persuaded’-but joined his soul brothers one more time for his Commissioned swan song.

Matters of the Heart was also to be the last studio album to feature drummer Michael Williams.

More so than the impact of the personnel changes that precede and proceed the record, Commissioned’s eighth release contains many a bona fide classic. Quite a number of them were written by Mitchell Jones, arguably the signature voice in the band (apart from Mr Hammond) and one of my all time favourite male vocalists.

Commissioned have influenced celebrated pop/R&B acts such as-most famously – Boyz II Men, Brandy, Brian McKnight and 112. When I first properly discovered Commissioned, long after their heyday, more established fans had to correct me when I commented on how much they sounded like Boyz II Men. ‘More like the other way around’ they would say.

You can hear Mitchell’s styling all over Wanya Morris and especially Shawn Stockman’s vocal delivery. It’s not hard to understand why. Jones’s distinctive tone is a mix of raspy and honey smooth in all the right places. He sounds as if he sings with a smile. His performances are heartfelt yet he doesn’t resort to the kind of over-singing of which even some of his former band mates are guilty.

Matters Of The Heart is wall to wall refreshment for the soul. Released at the tail end of the New Jack Swing explosion much of the production has the hallmarks of Teddy Riley’s subgenre. It has all the signature greatness of a typical Commissioned record too; superlative songwriting (albeit with more consistently ‘conventional’ structures than some of their previous efforts), mouth-watering harmonies and addictive melodies.

It’s the kind of record that when you’re tempted to instantly replay one song, you soon change your mind on hearing the next, which you’ll find just as delicious as the one that’s gone before. Album openers ‘Work on Me’ – quintessentially Hammond – and ‘Stand’ are probably ‘weakest’ tracks. That’s more of a style than a content problem. They don’t pack the melodic punch of the rest of the album although the underlying message of both songs-perseverance-is as powerful as ever.

Commissioned – “Stand”:

‘Love Is The Way’ is more representative of the compelling melodies for which Commissioned are known. Co-written by Chuckii Booker of ‘Games’ fame, it has a light-hearted, pop sensibility serving as a pleasant segue to the rest of the album.

Commissioned – “Love Is The Way”:

‘Dare to Believe’ is a heart-tugging, ballad-esque song of encouragement, showcasing some classic Commissioned harmonies with Jones doing the bulk of the lead vocals. The fellows follow it up with an easy-does-it cover of Phil Collins’ ‘Another Day In Paradise,’ yet again taking the opportunity to douse the listener in gorgeous harmony.

Commissioned – “Dare To Believe”:

It took me a while to warm to ‘You Can Always Come Home’. I think I was a bit put off by Run DMC’s nursery rhyme rap interlude which dates the record probably more than it should. However over the years having paid more attention to the touching sentiment of the track, infused in both the melody and the prodigal son lyrics, I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more.

Commissioned – “You Can Always Come Home”:

‘When Love Calls You Home’ continues the idea of the lost sheep returning to the fold but this time for good. The production has a much more mainstream feel, the gated drums, synths and rueful guitar calling to mind the emotionally-charged power ballads of the 1980s-but without the cheese.

‘Lay Your Troubles Down’ is the closest thing I have to a standout track on a consistently great album. In a similarly ’80s mode to ‘…Calls You Home’ (the chord progression on the intro is not dissimilar to that of Madonna’s ‘Live to Tell’) its message of reassurance resonates through every note and bounce of the mid-tempo beat. The soul-stirring ‘Find Myself In You’ with its immediately memorable refrain, reflects on discovering a deeper understanding of oneself through faith in God. It completes the album’s ’80s trip down memory lane.

The production on the Mitchell Jones and long time Commissioned collaborator Parkes Stewart-penned, ‘I Am Learning’ is more rooted in the early ’90s R&B ballad tradition, the kind favoured by one Mr Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds. The chorus has the type of aching beauty that seems almost too good for this sorry world.

‘We Shall Behold Him’ is a take on Dottie Rambo’s more country-style original. The Commissioned lads deserve much kudos for putting their own contemporary stamp on the song without losing any of its power.

Commissioned – “We Shall Behold Him”:

To conclude, the group delve even further back into the church canon with a movingly sincere, virtually acappella interpretation of treasured hymn ‘Draw Me Nearer’ written by the prolific Fanny Crosby. It contains a lovely falsetto solo by Karl Reid who, with the exception of ‘Lay Your Troubles…’, is otherwise a lot less prominent on Matters of the Heart than older Commissioned projects.

Commissioned – “Draw Me Nearer”:

Matters… was the beginning of the end of an era. The group – or what was left of it – plus some new recruits went on to record one more classic; ‘Irreplaceable Love’ on which they finally worked with Jones’ musical offspring Shawn and Wanya from Boyz II Men. 1999 saw the release of ‘Time & Seasons’. Featuring an even more scaled down line-up, it wasn’t as well received by some of the fanbase.

In 2002 Commissioned members past and present (although not all) shared the stage again for a live reunion record. Then…silence. The individual members continue with their solo output, Hammond and Jones even releasing tribute albums on which several Commissioned hits have been reworked.

In light of how things more or less drew to a halt for the band a few years after it hit the shelves, Matters Of The Heart was as good a valedictory gift as they could have left for us.

Commissioned – Matters Of The Heart
Released: 1994
Label: Benson Records
Buy: iTunes UK / iTunes US