Artist: Sanctus Real
Album: We Need Each Other
In Brief: As straightforward, bouncy, fun Christian rock albums go, this one’s a good example of why the genre still has some life left in it.
For all of my frequent criticisms of the Christian music industry and the cookie-cutter artists emerging from that scene at an alarming rate these days, every now and then I find myself having to admit that I do still enjoy the work of one of one of its most radio-friendly bands. This is certainly the case with the latest album by Sanctus Real, an unabashedly straightforward power pop/modern rock band from Toledo, Ohio who fits pretty snugly into Christian Hit Radio formats and who seems to be the heir apparent to now-defunct bands like Audio Adrenaline that play mostly to the youth group set. They were mostly ear candy for me until a few tracks on their 2006 album The Face of Love showed a bit more cerebral depth and restraint, which was perhaps off-putting to some fans, but I thought it suited them better to know when to hold back and when to go full throttle. Now, on this year’s We Need Each Other, the band has expanded to a fivesome by adding a second guitarist, which set them up nicely to turn out a riff-heavy album full of ear candy – which they pretty much did. But the depth gained on The Face of Love has not been lost. It ain’t rocket science, but the band’s ability to crank the fun factor up to 11 while singing about something generally a bit more thoughtful than the cheerleading anthems that their first few albums were heavy on gives them exactly what they need to stand out in an overcrowded market.
Let’s not mistake the high level of enjoyment that’s led me to play this album repetitively for an unconditional expression of critical praise, though. While Sanctus Real managed to win over this confirmed skeptic with their massive hooks and unbridled optimism, I still think they’re the kind of band that is best suited for an audience already accustomed to the trappings of Christian rock music. Musically, they’ve got a lot going on that fans of Switchfoot or Relient K or Jimmy Eat World or Weezer would probably enjoy, but they’re not the kind of band whose lyrics would give them any crossover appeal. I’m fine with that. At times their writing can be predictable, but I think it comes across as honest more often than it comes across as contrived. There are few “lyrically straightforward” bands that I can really get this much enjoyment out of, given how I usually like to be baffled by song lyrics that are more poetic, but for whatever reason, Sanctus Real passes my personal cheese test. I can’t call anything that they do groundbreaking on an artistic level, and there are certainly a few missteps where their approach seems a bit obvious and heavy-handed, but I wouldn’t relegate them to “guilty pleasure” status, either. If you’re not into the whole Christian rock thing, We Need Each Other probably isn’t for you, but for the audience it’s aimed at, it’s probably one of the better rock albums to come from a major record label in the year 2008. That probably sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment, but just this once, you can consider my opinion on a CCM band to be devoid of any sarcasm or irony. I like this record. It’s fun.
1. Turn on the Lights
Flip on the switch, illuminate the future
Send a shock through the power lines…
The band begins the record in the most winning way possible – with a scorching guitar riff that immediately puts a chokehold in the listener. While chunky modern rock riffs are this band’s bread and butter, this one’s got a little extra spice to it, because there’s a hint of blues to it, as filtered through heavy metal bands from far back enough that blues was more of an influence on the genre than hip-hop, but sped up to comply nicely with zippy power pop standards. In other words, it’s hella fun. The song is more about banging your head than engaging your brain – it’s a big, brash, loud anthem about being a light to the world. Matt Hammit‘s excitedly raspy vocals and Mark Graalman‘s slamming drums are highlights of this shock-to-the-system performance, as is the noisy work of guitarists Chris Rohman and Pete Prevost. The song works as a sort of mission statement for the record even if there’s nothing terribly deep here (there’s even a bit of lyrical awkwardness, truth be told, in the line “Don’t think it’s something that’s electric just ’cause we’re using the radio waves”. Trust me, they get better). The convincing energy easily makes up for any lyrical pitfalls here, and I’m incredibly amused by the fact that the guitar solo is played by Peter York, who is apparently one of the bosses at Sparrow or EMI or whatever their record label calls itself these days. I usually picture Christian record label dudes as stuffy guys in suits who find any way they can to kill the adventurous inclinations of bands like this, so it’s kinda cool that he showed up and taught Sanctus how to rock it old school.
2. We Need Each Other
Life revolves around the need of having someone
Causing every complicated feeling….
The title track is one of those larger-than-life, everybody-come-together sorts of anthems that proves impossible to get out of your head – at least, that’s the effect that it has on me. The way that the guitars zip along, immediately establishing the core melody of the song, while the drums take off with a sort of galloping “cadence”, makes it feel like the theme song for some sort of wholesome TV hero. It took me a while to realize why I got the “galloping” image in my head when I listened to this one, and today it finally dawned on me that it feels a lot like U2‘s “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, except that where that other song is about a breakup, this one’s about sticking together. Realizing that life is lonely without friends and that it’s hard to persevere in one’s faith without the help of community is kind of a duh statement, so I can’t give tons of points for the lyrics here even though I do wholeheartedly agree with what’s being said. The reason why the song is still a rousing success despite its simplicity is simply because, once again, the band performs it like they genuinely believe it. It’s similar to the title track from The Face of Love in that sense, though the music is more lively and immediate here.
3. Black Coal
There in the darkness beneath the surface of time and space
Could be a treasure that you’d only see through the eyes of grace…
The band goes for a catchy rocker hat trick with this one, once again turning the guitars and vocals up full blast for a tune that bears no pretense regarding the big, goofy smile that it wants to put on your face. This one’s about the role than individuality plays within unity – being part of Christian community shouldn’t have to imply burying one’s unique qualities and basically being a robot. Sure, the metaphor of a person being a diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered is sort of a well-worn one. Sure, I might have to dock the band a few points for their lack of knowledge of the periodic table (diamonds are carbon-based and come from coal, and while “gold” rhymes quite nicely with “coal”, the two don’t come from even remotely the same process!), and for the obligatory Jesus name-drop that shows up in verse two when we already understood the “creator as jeweler” metaphor, but it’s still fun and it rocks my face off, and the slight missteps aren’t egregious enough to botch the impact of the lyrics. (As a bonus, check the band’s MySpace for an acoustic rendition of this song that surprisingly works despite the laid-back change of context.)
4. Whatever You’re Doing (Something Heavenly)
Time for a milestone, time to begin again
Re-evaluate who I really am
Am I doing everything to follow your will?
I’m just climbing aimlessly over these hills…
I suppose it made sense to slow down a bit after the blast of energy we got from the preceding trio of songs, but here’s where I think the band blows a bit of the goodwill that they started to build up at the beginning of the album. Ballads have never really been Sanctus Real’s strong point – this band’s strength is energy, and when a song doesn’t really find its momentum and “take off”, it can be an obvious low point on one of their albums. This one’s not as egregious as the last album’s “Magnetic” in that department, but it finds the band relying on an all-too-familiar formula of uninventive acoustic guitar strumming and the whole hit-every-eighth-note approach on the electric guitar when the chorus rolls around – the kind of thing that will remind everyone of Coldplay even though Coldplay themselves finally managed to successfully phase out that cliche. “Too obvious” is how I’d describe the song all around – Matt Hammit wants to play around with the ironic concept of how it hurts and feels uncomfortable when God makes changes within him, even though he knows those changes are ultimately for good and that he needs to be trusting about it. I feel like I’ve heard this one before, and much better written, too. The song wants to be a tear-jerker and yet still sound like the work of a rock band – what we get is an unimaginative, mushy compromise somewhere in between. It does the band no favors because it thwarts any attempt they’re making to stand out. Which of course means it was a ripe pick for a Christian radio single. DOH.
Can we get back to where we started
When creation lived peacefully in Your hands
Before the wars began…
The band swings and misses again on this youth-groupy worship anthem. Remember how I compared “We Need Each Other” to “The Face of Love”? This one seems to want to follow in the footsteps of that reflective praise song as well, and it does it by building on this record’s theme of unity, which ain’t a bad thing… but it throws nearly every cliche in the book at us in the process. It makes a plea for an end to wars and personal differences and asks Christians to come together with one voice… and by the time we get to the chorus, we’ve fallen into the trap of “singing about singing”, which is what a lot of modern worship songs end up doing in less capable hands these days. Music has a way of unifying people, and there’s no denying that it feels good to sing along with a chorus of people… but why not just write a song that people can sing along to and less it be about something instead of just letting the self-referential “song about singing a praise song” thing drum up vaguely fuzzy feelings in the audience? “The Face of Love” was an anomaly, I think – generally speaking, “modern worship” is not this band’s forte.
6. Leap of Faith
This too shall pass, oh, but it always comes back
And it’s knocking upon your door…
Alright, back to the good stuff – the rest of this record is dud-free, and that’s saying a lot given how Sanctus has generally fizzled out in the back half of their previous albums. Lots of jerky palm-muting and Graalman’s quirky drum beats are the main elements in another successful hook, and this track would be a good example of Sanctus Real stating the obvious in a just-barely-sly enough way for us to go, “Aha! I knew that but I forgot that I knew it!” It’s a song about risk and the tendency that we have to stagnate in fear because the unknown scares us. Sanctus doesn’t want to mock us for this – they want to motivate us by saying, “Look, embracing the unknown is part of what faith is.”
7. Lay Down My Guns
And I have seen the devil in this place
And I lost myself when my friends found the grave…
When you’re this far from Heaven, it’s hard to keep the faith
I’m barely holding on…
This one’s tricky – it sounds rather mellow and watery at first due to the gentle, wispy strains of electric guitar that start it off and the way that the band uncharacteristically backs off until somewhere around the second chorus. It leads you to expect some sort of a weepy tribute to a fallen soldier. It sort of is, but it’s written from the point of view of a soldier who lived to tell the tale – and this tale remains thankfully apolitical as it neither condemns this soldier’s war nor paints him as an automatic hero just by association. The issue is that he’s seen a lot of friends fall and he feels like he’s looked into the face of hell itself, and he just wants to go home and see his family and make peace and love and all of those things that aren’t considered war. You can take it as an allegory if you want – take it to be about sacrificing the right to be angry and the right to be right and surrendering to Christ’s command to be a peacemaker. Or you can take it literally. It works either way. The true genius of this song is how it seems to explode when it really gets going – Graalman’s ferocious drum rolls are its defining characteristic as it comes barreling towards its climax. Just because this solider longs to find peace doesn’t mean that peace has to be quiet and sterile. It’s a loud celebration with fireworks and parades and noisy rock bands and screaming kids playing in the yard. It’s loud and yet sublime at the same time. This is what Sanctus Real does best.
I could never lose Your love to sickness
I could never lose You to divorce
And there’s no concept of abandonment
For I am safe within Your arms…
This “sleeper hit” buried in the back half of the album almost disproves my earlier point about Sanctus Real not doing ballads well. The thing is, I can’t figure out whether it’s appropriate to call it a ballad. Once again, the band shows uncharacteristic restraint, and yet paradoxically, they keep the song moving at a brisk pace. It’s fully electric, but fluid in nature, never turning up the distortion, but instead taking a more economic approach where each glimmering note counts for something. The drums are the song’s saving grace for a completely different reason – it’s a lot of gently brushed snares and hi-hats, treading gracefully as if realizing that the song walks on holy ground. I’m inspired to exaggerate because the song tries to paint a picture of “forever” within the scope of a four-minute, radio-friendly format, and against all odds, it succeeds. The simple analogy of a divine marriage that can withstand all forms of misunderstanding and human suffering and even death itself is beautifully, reverently sung. As overused as the romance analogy is in Christian music, often at the expense of other types of relationships that are equally valid as a lens through which to view God, this song is a perfect example of why that analogy can be so compelling.
9. Half Our Lives
And we will spend our days finding helpless competition to defeat
Yeah, we’ll chase away the girls, and pretend that we don’t want ’em on our street
Yeah, the sun is running too, being chased off by the moon
And we should go to bed, but we’ll catch fireflies instead…
Okay, now here’s the point where I have to admit that I was wrong regarding Sanctus Real’s ability to do ballads well. Because this track is not only the mellowest one on the entire record and completely different from anything I’ve heard SR do in the past, but it’s also thoroughly gorgeous and quite possibly the record’s best track. It’s got a lot of slamming power pop anthems to compete with, but every now and then, a skilled band can figure out how to knock ’em dead with a weapon as light as a feather. This song carries no pretense with it and doesn’t burden itself with the need to make any “higher analogy” – it simply lauds the beauty of a lazy summer evening recorded in the recesses of a man’s childhood memories. You’d expect a track like this to require the use of an acoustic guitar, but the band somehow manages to construct the entire thing around two gently woven electric guitars, and another light drum beat. Matt Hammit makes you believe that he is that little boy, the one afraid to fall asleep because he might wake up older, the one who finds absolute joy in catching fireflies and chasing icky girls out of his yard and reveling in the simple sense of wonder that we grown-ups so easily lose. Sweeteneing the deal even more is the vocal presence of indie/acoustic pop singer Katie Herzig – her performance here is so delicious that I was prompted to check out one of her albums on the strength of a backing vocal alone. I love that on an unabashedly “Christian rock” record directed at an audience who expects their songs to name-drop God and Jesus or at least be full of the obvious lingo, the band is comfortable letting this song simply be what it is, and trust that the statement that God made something beautiful is implicit without the need to name-drop.
What will they say when I’m gone?
And words that are written in stone under my name
What will they claim about me?
The band pulls their unity theme together with their ruminations on the beginning and ending of life that’s been prevalent over the last few tracks, for a final statement that asks us what’s going to be left behind when we’re gone. This is going to be familiar territory if you’ve listened to pretty much anything Switchfoot’s written in the past few years, and it’s for this reason (as well as the compatible musical style) that it occurred to me to compare the two bands. It’s not like Switchfoot came up with the concept that “we only get one life”, either, but any band who attempts to cover the topic is bound to make me think of them these days, especially when they do it with a bunch of jump guitar riffing. I rather like that they chose to close the record on a final upbeat anthem, allowing the gentler songs to serve as the unlikely climax and sort of flipping the usual order of things on your average radio-friendly rock record. Like most of this album, what the band lacks in originality here, they make up for with a positively joyful performance.
We Need Each Other is a lean and mean little album – 10 songs, mostly winner, and I’d even go so far as to say it has no filler, despite the two tracks that I didn’t like. Each song is distinctive; each has its reason for being there and its piece that it adds to the overall theme. It’s likely already gotten lost in a sea of similarly hook-laden pop/rock albums from like-minded bands, and it’s not the type of album that will change the world, but for the most part, it does find Sanctus Real concentrating the majority of the things they do best, plus a few new tricks, into a tight little package. You don’t need this album in your collection – but if you’re into this type of music, it certainly deserves a fighting chance to win you over.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Turn on the Lights $1.50
We Need Each Other $1.50
Black Coal $1
Whatever You’re Doing (Something Heavenly) $0
Leap of Faith $1.50
Lay Down My Guns $1.50
Half Our Lives $2
Matt Hammitt: Vocals
Chris Rohman: Guitar
Pete Prevost: Guitar
Mark Graalman: Drums
Dan Gartley: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.