With their refreshing hybrid of alternative and Southern rock tinged with bluegrass, NEEDTOBREATHE has the energy, style, and coolness of a full-fledged rock n’ roll band. Bear Rinehart’s trademark edgy-but-inviting vocals soar through beautiful, soul-searching, honest lyrics. Their songs vary in subject, tempo, and style, but not in quality. They are my favorite band, and in my opinion, one of the greatest bands of all time.
After attending my first NEEDTOBREATHE concert, I wrote, “The genuineness of person and the love and skill for music and message with which they approach the stage is something beautiful… The truth of and zeal for life, yet honest confession of feeble devotion that they portray in their music is so refreshing and pure in the midst of so much music that is glossed-over and empty.” I still feel that way, several concerts and albums later. I even coined a term to describe their music: “life-wrenching.”
Even with a band I care so much about, it’s sometimes easy to forget the people behind the music. In several interviews and videos I’ve seen recently, the NEEDTOBREATHE guys have talked about going through a rough patch as a group. We all know the tensions that rise between people, even brothers and friends, especially when they’re spending so much time together, trying to navigate their lives under pressure. The guys came back together after a break and found an appreciation for each other that makes them feel akin to when they were first starting out. Rivers in the Wasteland is a product of reconciliation, renewal, and refocus.
So that’s where we start with this album. Finding the rivers in the wasteland.
1. Wasteland. This ballad is the perfect way to start off this album. Not only does it express the dry brokenness of the band’s trying times, it automatically makes the listener relate. At some point or another, we’ve all felt like we’re living in a wasteland. But, as NEEDTOBREATHE so beautifully does, they infuse the song with a vein (or river, if you’ll humor me) of hope that crescendos into a waterfall. This hope is not something they find in themselves, but, the song says, “If God is on my side/ who can be against me.” It’s a song of honesty, surrender, dependence, and (of course) hope.
“In this wasteland/ where I’m living/ there is a crack in the door filled with light/ and it’s all that I need to get by.”
2. State I’m In. This is one of the fun, up-tempo songs on the album. It’s got a head-bobbing beat and a catchy chorus. It’s still a song of searching, though, with a play on the meaning of the words. Is “the state I’m in” referring to a life of being on the road and not being able to remember which state you’re in… or does it reference not knowing exactly where you are or where you’re going in life? I say both.
3. Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now. Another uptempo track, this a true rock number with distorted vocals and wailing guitars. The message? Don’t give up. Keep on moving.
4. Oh, Carolina. I think this was the first track I heard off this album; they played it at their last concert I went to. Though it’s not clear if Carolina refers to a girl or the band’s home state (play on meaning again), it’s a song of returning to a far away love. Another fun, upbeat song, it serves as the album’s most likely dance tune. Make sure you strap on your boots for this one.
5. Difference Maker. I’d describe this song as a sorrowful satire. Some might take it as inspirational at face value, but if you listen carefully, you’ll pick up on the sad hypocrisy in the lyrics (“I am the difference maker/ I am the only one who speaks to Him/ I am the friendliest of friends of God”), which Bear has alluded to when talking about this song. We all want to believe we’re all difference makers because of what we’ve built with our own hands, yet all that reveals is our arrogance. It’s a brow-furrowing, thought-provoking song that points us all back to the foolishness of our own pride.
“We are all transgressors/ we’re all sinners/ we’re all astronauts/ so if you’re beating death then raise your hand/ but shut up if you’re not.”
6. Rise Again. This calm, mid-tempo tune is another ode to hope and moving on, either in this life or in the next. It’s a great song, but a simple one.
7. The Heart. The first single off Rivers in the Wasteland, this track is a perfect NEEDTOBREATHE primer to introduce to your friends who aren’t familiar with the band. As I’ve said before, their style varies, but this is as good a song to describe their sound as any. Upbeat, energetic yet yearning, Bear’s driving lyrics with background harmonies, handclaps and acoustic guitars and banjos, lyrics that point toward purpose– this song has a little bit of everything. And it’s just darn fun.
8. Where the Money Is. Bear’s quote from a recent video, “Needing a purpose is one thing. Needing success is a rotten thing,” is this song in a nutshell. It’s a solid, mid-tempo song about the danger of being driven by money and success.
9. Multiplied. This is a worship song. Straight up. It’s simple, but oh-so-beautiful. A joyful hallelujah in response to the love of God. I’m so happy with this track.
“God of mercy/ sweet love of mine/ I have surrendered to Your design/ May this offering stretch across the skies/ And these Hallelujahs be multiplied”
10. Brother. It’s hard to pick favorites because all of these songs are so good, but this song is definitely near the top of the list. Especially thinking about what it must mean to this band after all they’ve been through. And thinking about all the people I love, who I’ve faced this life with. This emotional anthem is my 21st century “Lean on Me.” I already know it’s going to get a lot of playing time on my iPod. The style embraces rock, folk, and even choral aspects.
“Brother let me be your shelter/ I’ll never leave you all alone/ I can be the one you call/ When you’re low.”
11. More Heart, Less Attack. While the title sounds like something off an early Relient K album, this song is far from just wordplay. Another soft, sweet, simple song, it’s the call to action of this album, with subtle reminders of the other songs (it seems to me) weaved into the lyrics. It’s about sanctification, love, and growth. It’s where we stand and what we move toward when we realize our right place among God and other people.
“The more you take the less you have/ cause it’s you in the mirror staring back.”
Overall, I love this album. I wish it had more songs, of course, but it’s so jam-packed with good ones, I really can’t complain. Rivers is NEEDTOBREATHE in style, heart, and vulnerability, but the band’s not afraid to try new things both musically and lyrically. It’s stripped down and far less produced than the last couple of albums, and it feels even more intimate and honest because of that. The lyrics are both clever and simple; they tell stories, confess failures, express longing, and display hope.
I’m so thankful that while the band has mainstream success and produces quality art definitely worthy of that success, while they aren’t pigeon-holed by singing about the same tired subjects of most in the Christian market, while they feel so very “real,” that despite all this they are still open about their faith and not afraid to worship God through their music. They’re honest about who they are and what their lives are about. I admire that, and I hope they never forsake that honesty for anything else. Their purpose is rooted in God, and they aren’t afraid to show it.
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