David Crowder's fledgling solo era under the "Crowder" name has been a rousing success, with 5-star Neon Steeple producing hits and Neon Porch Extravaganza capturing the essence of the band's live show.
Crowder's second studio album, American Prodigal, is a musical progression from "folktronica" to "swamp pop," and it's a straightforward examination of the problem of sin and the promise of heaven. The album wears its theme on its sleeve, following a sinner in need of rescue. In the "Intro," he's pleading for angel choirs to join his song of deliverance. By the "Outro," he's back in communion with God. In between are songs of sin and struggle and forgiveness and freedom. The thread is so consistent that some song titles wind up in other song's lyrics. Only once, really, does a song stretch beyond the fundamental issue to provide a bit of societal commentary, when "Prove It" addresses both metaphorical and literal slavery.
At the risk of gross oversimplification, David Crowder's music can be sorted into three categories. There are the worship songs, dating back to Baylor University and the reason Crowder started a band in the first place. Think "Everything Glorious," "How He Loves" and "Come As You Are." Then there are the foot-stompers, the self-described hoe-downs and banjo-plucking party songs that draw from Crowder's Texas roots. These are often covers, including concert favorite "I Saw the Light," and sometimes lean heavily toward guitar-driven rock ("Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains)"). Finally, there are the quirky songs, the inventive ones that include keytar or megaphone or lyrics from the most abstract corners of Crowder's remarkable brain. American Prodigal is an outstanding collection of songs from the first two categories, with a notable dearth of quirky loops and head-spinning lyrics. The worship songs don't sound distinctively Crowder-esque, but they're finely crafted and will resonate with a whole bunch of prodigals. More prolifically represented is the hoedown/rock song grouping. As "Shouting Grounds" declares, "It's gonna get loud."
If the volume is a bit surprising, it is not unwelcome. The guitars are unleashed to fine effect on several songs, including the lead single "Run Devil Run" and "All Your Burdens." The rappers who would occasionally guest in Crowder's live sets are given studio space this time around, and while it's not an entirely original feature, it works. These songs will play well in concert, and the recently announced pairing with Tedashii on Crowder's tour is prescient.
When the album's not rocking, it's spinning big worship anthems that will also work well live (notably, the Ed Cash-produced "My Victory" and "Forgiven"). The "big worship anthem" has become a cliché, but Crowder is such a strong artist that even when he's following formula, he can create a song I want to listen to over and over. CCM single "My Victory" is a good example. It's tailor-made for both radio and a Passion conference, which are phrases sometimes used sardonically, but it's a great song. It's also worth noting that another worship song, "All My Hope," belies the CCM formula in favor of a gospel piano that takes the listener straight to a Sunday morning with a swaying choir, hands high in praise.
Prodigal is a solid offering, and Crowder remains fixed as one of the genre's finest. However, there are moments on the album that sound a bit derivative, and I never thought I'd use that term to describe any David Crowder music. I can't shake hearing P!nk's "So What" when I hear the beat driving "Prove It." "Shouting Grounds" has the stomp-stomp-clap from "We Will Rock You." Scattershot percussive "Hey!'s" are used to decent effect, but that's a production trend that waned not too long after the Lumineers hit it big. These are minor faults, and they're probably only noticeable because Crowder has set the bar so high with a rich history of inventive, original work.
Perhaps related to this quibble is the feeling that the album stays on a short leash. The quirky songs are missing, yes, but more importantly absent are the obtuse metaphors or lyrics that give pause to ponder. The biggest exception is a treasure on the deluxe edition called "Praise the Lord", written by Sean McConnell. The lyrics are as honest as they are profound, and the song grabs the listener from the opening: "I used to shake You like an eight ball / I used to shoot You like a gun." It sounds like a classic Crowder lyric, even though it's a cover.
American Prodigal tells an old, old story, and while it's not Crowder's most creative offering, it takes an important place in his remarkable catalog by alternately cranking up the volume and showing how good a worship song can be.- Review date: 9/20/16, written by Mark D. Geil of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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