Believe it or not, Christian music can be really quite excellent. It can be liturgical (as in Gungor and Hillsong), controversial (like Daniel Amos or Steve Taylor), vital (in the way of DC Talk), fun (like Five Iron Frenzy) and incredibly complex (let’s not forget Phil Keaggy).
NEEDTOBREATHE is none of those things.
They are, however, a shining example of a Christian artist enjoying success in the mainstream. NEEDTOBREATHE was the perfect band at the perfect time, dropping their first album — a straightforward rock affair — just as the Contemporary Christian Music scene was gasping its final breath as a relevant genre. As their fans grew and matured in their tastes, their music followed suit, morphing into a pleasing, vanilla southern-rock sound reminiscent of Mumford and Sons crossed with The Fray. It’s pleasing, yes, but not terribly interesting.
Their newest record Rivers in the Wasteland takes yet one more step away from their pop-rock roots — riding a fixie, twirling a handlebar moustache and wearing raw denim jeans and suspenders directly into the folk-rock heartland.
It makes sense. Mumford, Dawes, The Civil Wars and the other folkish bands NEEDTOBREATHE try to emulate also litter their lyrics with quasi-spiritual themes and comforting platitudes. NEEDTOBREATHE’s are a bit more openly evangelical in their origin, but only just.
“Wasteland” opens the record, opting for the slow burning ballad to start rather than the instant impact of “Oohs and Ahhs” that kicks off this record’s predecessor The Reckoning. The lyrical refrain of “If God is on my side / Then who can be against me” is warm and inviting, but I’m not sure many theologians would endorse its usage here, in the face of growing old rather than, say, spiritual warfare.
“State I’m In” ramps things up with Beach Boys-like vocal layering and cut-time, bluegrass energy — Definitely the strongest moment on the record. Other standout tracks are “Oh, Carolina” a perfect Creedence Clearwater Revival homage to the American south. “Rise Again” is about as folksy as it can get, complete with tambourine percussion, mandolin and acoustic guitar rumbling with locomotive-like momentum over a gospel-tinged melody celebrating the afterlife.
We crawled through the abyss then we came through the other side
Heaviness is only temporary the daylight will soon break in
The sunlight can change a heart in the wake of a bitter end.
Oh I know I’m gonna rise again
Set my sights on where I’m going
And my goodbyes to where I’ve been
The biggest turn on the record comes on “Where the Money Is”, a surprising pop-rock interlude. The band can’t resist quieting down and letting the acoustic guitar take center stage at the bridge, but the rest of the song is percussive bass, smooth electric lead and twinkling keys. I love the southern rock growl of frontman Bear Rinehart over the perfectly poppy instrumentation. I actually just love that song. And “Brother” is cheesy and practically begging to be used in the background of some Grey’s Anatomy montage, but hey, it probably deserves to be.
The low points on the record come when the band tries to get too clever with the lyrics. Christian artists have a habit of being brilliant with wordplay — consider the many Newsboys cuts like their ode to consumerism “Fad of the Land”, Relient K’s catalog of effortlessly memorable hooks and Steve Taylor’s entire career. So there’s a precedent for NEEDTOBREATHE to try their hand. This time, most of it falls flat.
The biggest offender is “More Heart, Less Attack”, a whimpering, unimpressive closer which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with cardiac arrest beyond trying to be pithy. “The Heart” tries to obscure the fact that it has nothing at all to say by saying it with a heavy-handed rural vernacular. “Difference Maker” aspires to be a deep, thoughtful takedown of false teachers and televangelist types, but for some reason ends up making Bear sound holier-than-thou on the misfire.
There’s lots and lots of good Christian music out there. Sadly, there is precious-little great Christian music. Often, it’s only the good that makes it out into the broader world of music. That’s the case on Rivers in the Wasteland. There’s plenty to like, and it’s a rich addition to the evolving catalog of NEEDTOBREATHE as a band.
But these rivers run too shallow to irrigate this wasteland.