What went wrong with P.O.D.’s Testify (and probably the last album)? Well, you have to wait thirty minutes into the Testify audio commentary to hear it right from the source, but it all eventually makes sense.
As the band explains the creative decisions made on “Let You Down” — a song responding to two close friends who attempted suicide, with one being tragically successful — the album’s hollow rehash aftertaste makes sense. Along with the rest of the crew, lead singer/screamer Sonny Sandoval explained that the unreleased demo version was recorded with a reversed playback overdub, albeit distinguishable, of him screaming the “f” word in a full out emotional rage.
Sonny explained the choice to trash the demo cut: “We wanted to say was how we felt about this person killing themselves, that it’s not worth it, that this f-ing world is not worth it… but then we played it for some of our friends and they were like, ‘Dude, you guys dropped the f-bomb!'”
Sonny wraps up his reasoning, “We wanted to cuss all over the song and really tell how we felt about the situation and our friend’s decisions… but we are always the center of controversy.” He’s referring to the band’s on-going struggle since their Atlantic debut to both make honest music and please the Warriors — a title for the faithful following the band since 1992.
Albeit with a fair amount of stylistic redundancy, this desire to please the Warriors is one of the main reasons Testify didn’t have the cultural impact or any where near the sales Satellite did. In frustration, P.O.D. has, at times, explained the last record’s poor sales by claiming Atlantic didn’t promote it enough. Payable on Death, their third release, didn’t come with a commentary like Testify did, but after listening to the band’s in-studio decisions, I wouldn’t point the finger at Atlantic.
Before I listened to the commentary, I enjoyed about a quarter of the record. The lead single and first track, “Roots in Stereo”, grabbed me instantly, with Hassidic reggae/hip-hop rapper Matisyahu leading the way. I ended up humming his hook for weeks. “Lights Out” is a galvanizing second track, much like Satellite‘s “Boom”, and if you can believe it, P.O.D. wrote “Lights Out” solely for ESPN highlights (its original title was even “ESPN”; I never saw it used with Chris Berman’s boisterous bantering, but I did see it used to advertise a glimmering Nissan Sedan). The I’m-missing-you-down-here-on-Earth see-you-soon-in-Heaven ballad is “Goodbye for Now”, which reminded me of “Satellite” from Satellite. Hmm… do you see a pattern here? I do. It stopped, though, with “Let You Down”, a possible follow-up to the culturally poignant “Youth of the Nation”, also another Satellite track.
Now, at first listen, “Let You Down” was a perfect melodic match. The macabre tone and eerie atmosphere created by John Truby’s melancholic meanderings gave me chills as the chords dripped into my ears. Sonny’s lyrics were raw and desperate, as if lifted off a scribbled suicide note. Each verse is as close as you can get to the lonely and confused heart of a person contemplating suicide. But when I listened to the track a few times more, I sensed what the audio commentary confirmed. To put it in current cinematic terms, the final version of “Let You Down” would have never survived a Sam Phillips studio try-out, where a (paraphrased here) Sam Phillips told a green Johnny Cash that “you must sing the kind of song that you would sing if you was dying in the gutter… because that’s the kind of song that saves people.” (And maybe even careers, eh?)
If P.O.D. was really that worried about cussing and upsetting their fans, then they really missed the point of making music. I’m not saying P.O.D. needed to cuss to make a great record, but what saddens me is how Sonny explains and justifies the artistic compromise made in the studio. I am fully aware of P.O.D.’s nasty career conundrum, and I know it’s really not that easy to solve. If you’re not aware, core fans, mostly Christians, have a peculiar knack and dubious reputation for being judgmental and hypocritical regarding the use of profane language, and when given the choice, often forgoing artistic expression for moral and religious appropriateness. P.O.D., although Christian rock pioneers in their own right, aren’t the first to be in this situation. One of their heroes, U2, has successfully weathered a similar storm of fan criticism.
Beyond releasing a greatest hits record November 21st on Rhino Records, what P.O.D. needs to do is to stop the silly easy-button pandering to the Warriors, make the kind music they said they made in the Testify sessions, and release it.