There is likely not a more beloved citizen of the Christian music world than Mr. Kevin Michael (TobyMac) McKeehan. From the early days (and big hair and hats) of dcTalk, to their ascent to superstar status in the mid-nineties, to TobyMac's twenty-plus year run as a solo artist, he has worked hard and delivered the musical goods year after year.
But there is also likely no one in Christian music who has had a more difficult past few years either.
The story of TobyMac’s son Truett’s death is well-known at this point, but TobyMac’s new album, the appropriately named Life After Death, is his first longform outing since that tragic event a few years ago, and it’s an equally well-crafted and heartbreaking take on the aftermath of events like this, particularly for those left behind.
The first thing that jumps out about Life After Death is the sheer amount of collaborations on one album. TobyMac has always been a gleeful music community member, guesting on other artists' albums and having all sorts of artists show up on his. But his latest album takes the guest star idea to the next level. Perhaps in making such a personal and heavy album, a community of friends is what was needed. And in having so many other artists around, the album almost takes on the feeling of a modern musical, with all kinds of voices showing up and a thematic touchstone of both loss and rejoicing in place.
The first four tracks on Life After Death tip towards an old school, 70’s era soul music review, with the funky and epic “Help Is On The Way (Maybe Midnight)” leading on. TobvMac, fused with a fantastic coterie of baritone backup singers, shows that his ability to craft a hook-filled radio song has never been brighter. The following, soulful “The Goodness (Featuring Blessings Offor)” feels like the kind of Sunday morning Gospel music tune that would bring the congregation to its feet. Soul singer Blessings Offor adds his magnetic presence to this tune, and two songs in, TobyMac has already showed his uncanny ability to mix sounds and still sound like himself.
“Deeper (feat. Tauren Wells)” grooves with purpose, with TobyMac and Tauren Wells swapping vocals on a heartfelt song about growing in one’s faith: “You can always tell me when I'm needin' a push / Breathe a little deeper just to slow down the rush / If you got the time, could you just come by and hang? / We'll put it all aside and marinate on some things / Deeper, I wanna go deeper / I'm gettin' tired of the surface (Tired of the surface) / Deeper, I wanna go deeper / I'm gettin' tired of the surface / tired of the surface.” “Show Up Choose Love (feat. Jon Reddick)” is a great ending to this series of soul tunes, with TobyMac leading the choir on a wonderful song about choosing to love your enemy in these troubled times we live in.
In a surprise bit of “guest casting,” 90’s rocker Sheryl Crow shows up for a remix of previously released “Promised Land”, and her well-known voice adds depth to this already-great tune that finds TobyMac at his most raw. This soulful and epic song finds the fiery performer showcasing a new side of himself after all these years, a sincere vulnerability. Set against a melodic bass guitar line (reminiscent of U2's classic "40"), TobyMac builds a case that the last few years have really taken their toll on him (for many obvious reasons), but his hope is not in having an easy life, or a "promised land" down here: "Out here on this desert road / It's hot as fire but I've grown cold / Circlin' like a plane that never lands / And even though the questions change / The answers always stay the same / Maybe someday I will understand / So I'm wonderin' / Got me wonderin' / Where's my promised land?" Then, towards the end of the song, TobyMac's perspective on a "promised land" changes from a physical place, or state of mind, to the comfort that the Lord promises to bring in the midst of the storm: "I won't give up on this race / Broken but I still have faith / That this old life is part of a plan / And I can feel it in my soul / One day, I'll stand before the throne / With nothin' left but hope and these two hands / Through all these seasons / I'm still believin' / You're my promised land / In all my grievin' / I'm still believin' / You're my promised land." The haunting “21 Years” continues this melancholy side and features a number of heartbreaking lyrics that reference inside jokes between TobyMac and his departed son alongside a mournful keyboard sound. The female artists Marlee (Toby's daughter) and Sarah Reeves add their prominent vocals to a few more songs that reference the sad passing of Mac’s son, and Life After Death suddenly moves from a great showcasing of talented artists and good songs to a more holistic work about grieving that perhaps serves as TobyMac’s greatest album. With a lyrical cohesion and an almost theatrical community feel throughout, Life After Death is a tough album (if you understand the sad context of it) that nevertheless gives hope.
TobyMac says it best in “Faithfully,” one of his rare solo songs on this album, and one that bleeds with purpose and sincerity: “You made a way for me / I may never be the same man / But I'm a man who still believes / When I cried out to You, Jesus / You were there faithfully.”
Life After Death is well worth your time, and shows that in Christ, believers “do not weep as those who have no hope.” Tragedy is not the end of the story.- Review date: 8/19/22, written by Alex Caldwell of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Capitol CMG / Forefront Records
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