After a short stint with BEC Recordings, co-writing the hit song "Speak Life" with TobyMac, and having his first number one single "Not Forgotten," Ryan Stevenson is finally ready to release his national full-length debut, Fresh Start. On this album, the paramedic-turned-recording-artist displays an infectious zeal for Jesus over a fun (albeit familiar) pop-based musical palette. The wildcard in the equation is Stevenson's simplistic sentiments about God's grace, which can vary between refreshing and cliché, but ultimately he sticks too close to the same message and relies too heavily on rhyming.
The title track immediately starts things off on the wrong foot with Stevenson talking over soft background noise: "Yo / it's me / I'm in a car / don't have service / fresh start, love it / just think raw, acoustic, heartfelt honesty." Even more than being awkward, it's confusing that the song then explodes into synthesized drum loops and beat boxing. Granted, there are also strings, piano, and an acoustic guitar layered in at different moments of the song, but they are all highly produced. Confusion and awkwardness aside, it's a decent song, but it's hard to take the message seriously when Stevenson forces rhymes in every nook and cranny: "You're giving me a fresh start / take my heart / do whatever You've gotta do / to get through."
"All Yours" brings the album's quality up a notch with a solid first verse that is reminiscent of Stevenson's stronger songwriting displayed on "Hold Nothing Back" and "The Human Side." But that doesn't last too long as this verse quickly gives way to familiar lyrics in the chorus: "I am all, all Yours / I am all, all Yours / the only way I'm free is to give You everything / I am all, all Yours." The music has good flow, catchy pop hooks, and a heartfelt vocal performance, but does little to stand out from his contemporaries. Similar strengths and weaknesses can be found on each successive track, with some songs ("Not Forgotten" "From The Ground Up") faring better than others ("Mercy Changes Everything" "Dare You To Trust My Love").
On initial listens, the songs seem to run together musically and lyrically, but more time with the album will help listeners realize each one has distinct musical characteristics. These can include small details like the hand percussions on "Chasing Your Heart" or style variations like the disco flavor on "Give It All Away." The most exciting and dynamic song on the record, however, is "From the Ground Up (Bonanza)" with steady verses, a fun-loving chorus, and a touching bridge. In this song, Stevenson attributes his hometown (Bonanza, Oregon) and the relationships he had growing up there as foundational to his faith and character. The album closes on a positive note with the piano-driven "Eye Of The Storm," which boasts an excellent guest feature from GabeReal of TobyMac's DiverseCity Band. GabeReal and Stevenson work well off each other, leaving us with a reminder to trust God in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Fresh Start is well-produced, catchy, and has an encouraging message of God's love. It may not be the most engaging album you'll hear this year, but there is plenty here to prove that Stevenson has the makings of a talented pop artist.
- Review date: 9/15/15, written by Christopher Smith of Jesusfreakhideout.com