Atlantic, 2016


REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp


Love, conflict, heartbreak, forgiveness – these are ingredients that, when mixed together properly, make for great music. In H A R D L O V E, the sixth studio album from Christian rockers Needtobreathe, the band draws on these themes and delivers perhaps their most personal album yet, a record that trades their characteristic joy for a more subdued intimacy. The result is a successful, more grown-up album from a successful, more grown-up band.

Title track and lead single “Hard Love” establishes from the get-go the more serious terrain Needtobreathe is charting in this album, with singer Bear Rinehart declaring over a crunchy beat, “Trading punches with the heart of darkness / Going to blows with your fear incarnate / Never gone until it's stripped away / A part of you has gotta die today.” The song, largely spun out of problems in the band members’ personal lives as well as their conflicts with one another, reaches a hopeful note in the winning chorus, where driving guitars match the message to “Get back up, ‘cause it’s a hard love.” Reflecting the album that bears its name, “Hard Love” is an anthem of perseverance and forgiveness, a story that neither dismisses love’s pain nor despairs over it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The theme carries over into “Money & Fame,” which, over a brass riff that brings to mind the theme from Rocky, condemns the titular markers of success: “Money and fame bring a man shame / Ain’t no doubt about it.” Drawing on personal experiences, Needtobreathe offers a warning to their audience that worldly success brings with it as many hazards as highlights. The triumphal music’s contrast with the sermonic lyrics keep this song from being a bummer and ironically bring the message forward.

Speaking of irony, “Happiness” uses the same strategy, this time with a gospel choir, to deliver a song about the difference between simple pleasures and true joy – which, in the song’s story, can only come if there is forgiveness. Like “Money And Fame,” this song is so upbeat and catchy that, until you listen to the lyrics, you don’t recognize the darkness lurking under its surface. “Be Here Long” abandons the irony and subtlety, but not the album’s themes, with a love song built on the fragility of life and relationships: “Oh, I'm swimming in the grief / And there's no anchor that could hold me down / I don't want any relief / 'Cause I don't wanna let you go right now.”

For those wanting a little less pensiveness in their rock music, Needtobreathe doesn’t leave them high and dry. “Great Night” is a straight party jam, with folk duo Shovels & Rope joining in on the fun. “Let’s Stay Home Tonight” and “No Excuses” are both standard ballads, perfect for the college freshman trying to woo his crush with an acoustic guitar. And for those who appreciate the album’s wrestling with spiritual themes but want a more overt Christian message, “Testify” delivers the kind of Southern rock-infused anthem that put Needtobreathe on the map.

H A R D L O V E is the product of a band who has experienced pain and come through the other side better for it, a group of skilled musicians looking not just to make you dance, but to think. While not delving quite as deep as contemporaries like Switchfoot or Gungor, the effort is admirable, and the music as joyous as ever. It remains to be seen whether H A R D L O V E will stand as a true departure from their roots or merely a detour for Needtobreathe – but either way, the album is a journey worth taking.

Rating: B

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