Last week, I did something shocking. I popped the Switchfoot Fading West CD out of my car’s CD player. Even though I have occasionally listened to something else since this album came out in January, it is true that the inside of my car is affectionately known as Switchfoot Nation. However, on April 15th, Needtobreathe came out with a new album called Rivers in the Wasteland.
For five years, we went to church in Seneca, South Carolina, near the home town of this group of guys with their sweet sound that is sorta country, sorta rock, but completely American and soulful. Bear Rinehart, the lead singer, played football with the son of a friend of mine. Now they tour all over the world, and you can see them on Rachael Ray, Ellen, or David Letterman. Bear has a distinctive voice that reminds me so much of Randy Newman, but others compare him to Joe Cocker. Bear, his brother, Bo, and Seth Bolt are the three permanent members of the band, but they travel with some amazing support musicians, too. My favorite performance of theirs was “Devil’s Been Talkin’” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last year. Unfortunately, since Jimmy Fallon is now on The Tonight Show, you can’t access that video anymore, and although you can see people talking about how incredible it was on the internet, all the links are dead. The good news is that you can stream several of the songs on this new album on their website.
So far, some of my favorite tunes start with the ‘50s sound of The State I’m In. I’m sure this is a double-entendre for a band that wakes up in a different state each morning for a large part of the year, and for this group of guys who are constantly aware of the difficulty of maintaining their Christian faith while touring, away from home and family. The very next song, Feet Don’t Fail Me Now is so fun, with a fast, stompin’ beat.
The first single the band is featuring is called “The Heart.” They performed this song really well on Ellen, and you can view it here. The video of this same song on their website shows a backyard party that would make anyone long for the South Carolina upstate, and the words affirm family, faith, and hope. For more Southern goodness, the boys sing about their homesickness on “Oh, Carolina.”
The song “Brother” is raw and heartfelt, and probably best projects the feelings of the band over the past couple of years since The Reckoning. The Rinehart brothers have spoken openly about the tensions and arguments that the band had over their vision for the future, and at one point it got so unbearable that their drummer, Joe Stillwell, walked away. The rest of the guys seriously considered breaking up for good. This song is a reconciliation.
At first, I did not care for the title track and first song, “Wasteland.” It starts “I’m the first one in line to die /when the cavalry comes.” Combine that with the way the guys are dressed on the album photo, and I thought, “Oh, no! Civil War reminders?” Instead, the song talks about life slipping by and how confusing it is when everybody else seems just fine, while you’re just struggling to figure out whether what you’re doing is right. Another one that hit me wrong at first was the sarcastic-seeming song “Difference Maker.” It talks about a man who had become rich and famous, who chalked it all up to his own talent and brilliance. He thought he was the only person who had a direct connection to God, as they say, “…the friendliest of friends of God.” I had to go to the internet to find out what the band meant by this, and in the News Release Tuesday article here, Bear says that the song is somewhat autobiographical in that their tremendous fame was a turning point for them, threatening to make them lose perspective, and in retrospect, the soul-searching they went through was probably a good thing for the band and for them as individuals. Both of these songs are very overtly Christian, and makes me recall the fantastic song “Maybe They’re on to Us,” from the Reckoning album. I think they’re definitely on to them, now.
My two favorite musical groups are Christian musicians who do not call their groups “Christian bands” and will not sign contracts with Christian record labels because of the constricting rules that keep them from realizing their artistic vision. (They both have two brothers in the band, too, but that’s beside the point.) They tend to write songs about life lived through faith, rather than worship music. Lots of rock, no altar calls. The latest albums by both Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, though, are much more obviously Christian than any of their earlier work. Both bands had gone through traumatic times while the songs were being written, and both had had to take time off to reflect on the purpose of their art and the mission of the band. Switchfoot decided to go around the world surfing—their other passion and the source of their name—meditating and discussing the future. The tour was interrupted when Jon Foreman’s little daughter became seriously ill, and the influence of that episode comes through in the lyrics and sound of Fading West. Needtobreathe agreed, among other things, that their music was becoming too overproduced, and Rivers in the Wasteland has a more “rootsy,” acoustic sound than The Reckoning.
At least once or twice a week, my morning prayer time includes petitions for famous Christians, especially musicians. They are exposed to so many temptations as they travel all over the world, meeting adoring fans and raking in tons of money. For these guys from a very small town in rural South Carolina, it could well be overwhelming and cause them to lose the faith that set them on this road in the first place. Although they have gone through so much suffering and adversity, I am so glad that they’ve decided to stay together and keep making great music for all of us. After all, we all need to hear what they’ve learned on the last song: “Be More Heart and Less Attack.”
Be sure to catch Needtobreathe on the David Letterman show on April 23rd! [Update: Here is the link to the David Letterman performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EY0mgqK154U .]