These days, it's not so rare for a band of Needtobreathe's talent to take a few years between releases and still have each one warmly welcomed, but the intervening years since courting arenas with Taylor Swift and releasing their biggest crossover album to date have been fraught with secret struggles. First, the departure of founding drummer Joe Stillwell came as a bit of a shock to their fans. Since then, the band has continued to tour and test new songs, though details of a new album remained quiet.
At the end of last year, the release of their tour documentary Prove the Poets Wrong broke the silence with an unflinching glimpse into the true story of Needtobreathe's past few years. Though in the midst of the most commercial success of their career, the band was falling apart inside. The film also brought the announcement of their new album, and such a candid look at those tumultuous years provides a richer context for Rivers in the Wasteland.
Though The Reckoning was perhaps Needtobreathe's biggest release, both in terms of sound and commercial acceptance, Rivers feels like the truest album they've made in years. Scaling back the aspiring arena anthems in favor of a stripped down approach, Rivers is a return to their roots that finds the band at the musical top of their game, with inspiration coming from many directions, from Beach Boys harmonies and grungy classic rock to Americana country and everything in between. The songwriting itself feels like a homecoming, or at least the journey back.
From the very start, Rivers in the Wasteland is different. While prior albums would favor a raucous opener like The Reckoning's edgy and dark power rocker "Oohs and Ahhs," this time "Wasteland," a slow burning acoustic ballad, leads the way, a testament to where the band has been and where they're going. In a voice wrung with emotion, Bear Rhinehart delivers a vulnerable introduction: "There was a greatness I felt for a while / But somehow it changed / Some kind of blindness I used to protect me / From all of my stains." It has a welcome weariness and honesty, before melting into the upbeat harmonies of "State I'm In." The overall vibe of the album is longing, humility, and a sense of being broken and redeemed.
In "Difference Maker," Bear ponders, "Isn't it amazing how a God can take a broken man / Let him find a fortune, let him ruin it with his own two hands," a worthy question in light of their story. "Rise Again" looks back on a relationship on the verge of self-destruction, while "Oh Carolina" serves as a love letter to their home and simpler times, written in rootsy country fashion. Though somber at times, there is still plenty of joy to be found in fun, danceable tracks like "The Heart" and "Where the Money Is," songs with a happiness that can't be manufactured for a pop hit. And that is this record's greatest strength; it comes by its wide emotional range honestly.
It's also interesting to note that while The Reckoning was certainly Christ-haunted, Rivers invokes some of their most expressly faith-driven songwriting since The Heat. In recent interviews, the band has expressed that the return to their roots includes making God more central to their music again, but they neither take a deliberate CCM approach nor hide behind the "we're Christians in a band" attitude. When Bear sings "Oh if God is on my side, who can be against me?" you know it's an honest expression of trust. "Multiplied" is unique in that it's the closest they've come writing a worship song since "Signature of the Divine," and yet the swirling harmonies and musical atmosphere take it to an artistically transcendent place. For an album born out of the band's near destruction, it's ultimately redemptive and joyful, filled with personal songs that don't hide behind vague lyrics or rock star ambitions.
It's easy to slip into the cliche that an album was "worth the wait," but in this case, it's true. Rivers in the Wasteland represents an already great band at their finest, a welcome return for the South Carolina boys, and already one of the best releases of 2014 so far.- Preview Review date: 3/2/14; Review date: 4/13/14, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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