NEEDTOBREATHE's last outing, Rivers In The Wasteland, was a career-defining album, born out of the trials of brotherly competition and the fatigue of life on the road (which almost did the entire band in). Having weathered the storm and written about it so masterfully (the tunes "Brother" and "Wasteland" address the situation with candor), the follow-up record, H A R D L O V E, feels like a continuation of this theme, albeit with a bit more time and distance giving the band some perspective and breathing room. The band's last live album, Live From The Woods [At Fontanel], felt like a culmination and emotional apex of NEEDTOBREATHE'S journey thus far, and a follow-up studio album faces the daunting challenge of finding its place in the band's historical narrative.
H A R D L O V E thankfully does not try and duplicate Rivers, but without the emotional heft of the events that inspired that album, H A R D L O V E feels a little flat in comparison, though still miles above where most bands are creatively. Sometimes the hardest thing to contend with is your own success.
The driving title track, "HARD LOVE" rightly states that all relationships require a "hard love" if they are to last, and the song fits in nicely with the band's story, "Hold on tight a little longer / What don't kill ya, makes ya stronger /Get back up, cuz it's a hard love / You can't change without a fallout / It's gon' hurt, but don't you slow down / Get back up, cuz it's a hard love." With an 80's college-rock vibe (think The Cure or Talking Heads), "HARD LOVE" is an album highlight right off the bat, and an interesting new flavor for the guys from South Carolina. As a statement of purpose, "HARD LOVE" is a great title track, and arguably the best overall song on the album; epic and driving, creative and heart-felt.
Motown-style blasts of soulful horns, multi-track choral vocals and handclaps pepper first single "HAPPINESS", "WHEN I SING" and "MONEY & FAME," giving the album a funky feel that is decidedly lighter than the last time out. "BE HERE LONG" echoes "Keep Your Eyes Open" musically, and "TESTIFY" is a wonderful worship tune in the vein of "Down To The River" and "Multiplied." "LET'S STAY HOME TONIGHT" is as (and appropriately so) romantic (and perhaps a little racy) a song as has been included on a Christian market release.
If there's a clear misstep here, it's in the album's final few tracks. "TESTIFY" is a great worship tune, with a nifty and down-home hammer dulcimer refrain, driving beat and fantastic, gripping melody, but it's sandwiched between two romantic tunes, the last of which ("CLEAR") skirts too close to the "is this about God or his wife" question. Different sequencing would have cleared up this confusion a bit. "CLEAR" has a haunting melody and a lovely piano refrain, and pulling back a bit on the "you're the oxygen that I breathe" and "I was once lost but in you I'm found" lyrics would have made the song a knockout. The repeated use of the word "honey" in the chorus makes it obvious that the song is addressing a lover, but the style, lyrics and over-emoting make it easy to confuse.
H A R D L O V E is an album with many good songs and a few great ones, but as a whole, it doesn't fit together as well thematically or musically as many of NEEDTONREATHE'S albums before it have. The relationship theme is there, but it's not as cohesive as it could be. For individual moments of creativity and risk-taking, however, H A R D L O V E is still miles ahead of where other bands are.- Preview Review date: 6/3/16, Review date: 7/8/16, written by Alex Caldwell of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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