Album: To Know that You’re Alive
In Brief: Kutless shows marked improvement, mostly in the music department, but not quite enough for me to recommend this puppy. Still, I admire the attempt.
It’s been over two years since I last had the pleasure of reviewing a Kutless album. Those who know me well should know by now that it’s an opportunity I always relish, because I tend to consider Kutless to be the poster boys for all that is wrong with Christian music, which provides ripe opportunities for humor and for pointed criticism of the industry as a whole as I probe into the nuts and bolts of what makes their music so amateurish and downright embarrassing. This is the sort of reputation that Christian music in general tends to have, not just in the outside world, but even among a lot of Christians. While I tend to devote much more of my time to discovering and bringing attention to the quality artists who tend to slip through the cracks and go unnoticed by most of Christian music’s detractors because they don’t fit the narrow expectations of Christian radio and therefore keep a much lower profile, every now and then it’s good to explore an example of the mistakes I think Christian music should be trying its hardest to avoid. Kutless makes that job easy – they wrap up the most egregious mistakes of the industry in a neat little box and tie it up with a radio-friendly little bow. The worse their albums are (and my write-ups on two of their five studio albums so far rank among the harshest reviews I’ve ever given), the more of a gift it is to this critic.
But I didn’t plan on Kutless actually starting to get things right for a change. Sure, there was the occasional track on their past albums where I could at least commend them for trying, and admit that I caught a small glimpse of intelligent thought in the lyrics, or at least that I found the ear candy factor to be strong enough to overcome their generally moronic songwriting tendencies. And after four albums, I had to admit that their tendency to rip off Creed, which provoked my most vitriolic comments in the past, had been largely replaced by more of an indistinct, default modern rock sound. 2006’s Hearts of the Innocent still ranked among my bottom 10 for the year, sometimes missing the mark hilariously, but it wasn’t a total failure. Still, I figured they had merely traded in their most egregious tendencies for more of a “mediocre power chord wallpaper” sort of sound, and that this was all I could ever expect of them. Several lineup changes hadn’t really bought them any credibility – until now. Apparently the culprit for a lot of the uninspired and ripped off guitar riffing on past albums was largely the fault of one Ryan Shrout, the extra guitarist in a band that seemed to have one more than they knew how to use. He departed in 2007, and the band’s newest member Nick De Partee was brought in not only to fill his instrumental shoes, but to assist with the songwriting – he’s co-credited with the composition of every track on the new album To Know that You’re Alive, save for one. Drummer Jeffrey Gilbert and producer Pete Kipley also played a major role in the songwriting here, and while their influence doesn’t manage to cover up all of lead singer Jon Micah Sumrall‘s embarrassingly plain-spoken moments that eschew all considerations of rhyme or creativity for the sake of keeping things at a third grade reading level, they do at least temper his worst tendencies. He and guitarist James Mead are the only original members left in the band, and I think it’s rather fascinating how the band continues to improve as its original members depart one by one.
While the lyrics have only improved by a matter of small degrees, the real success of To Know that You’re Alive lies in the music. De Partee seems to have brought with him a love for classic rock and metal riffs, which may still not be a terribly original approach, but it infuses several songs with a much-needed rush of energy that works better for Kutless than the typical chug-a-chug that they utilized to get some sort of sluggish movement out of the youth group set in the past. So the songs in which the lyrics are just a gambit in the first place now fare a little better, because it’s finally dawned on the band that mindless headbanging was a lot more fun in deacdes past than it was circa 2002 when all of the Creed-lite minions dominated rock radio. Post-grunge is more or less dead (sure, I still like a few groups like Alter Bridge, but this stuff isn’t all the rage any more), and I’ll give credit where credit is due – Kutless just barely managed to outlive the demise of their chosen genre. Elsewhere, when the band isn’t going full-throttle, they’ve improved their sound by way of atmospherics – any rock band can experiment with drum programming and string arrangements and so forth, and that doesn’t make Kutless’s latest work terribly original, but at least they’ve got an idea of how to make a mid-tempo or downbeat song sound appropriately moody when they’re singing about some form of spiritual struggle. I’d say that the hard-rocking stuff covers about a third of the record, with the “atmospheric” stuff overlapping that a bit and covering roughly another third. The final third is taken up, as usual, by Kutless’s more adult contemporary sensibilities, which has always been their other Achilles heel. They always seem to slam a few mellow songs in there without bothering to make them fit the overall tone and flow of the record, or to really even make them sound like the work of an actual band. This time out, they’re getting a little better about making those obvious K-LOVE singles sound like everyone in the group participated, but their mere still makes the band feel trapped between two worlds. Rock bands can do compelling ballads without having to totally switch genres on the audience, and when Kutless fails to realize this, they’re almost as laughable as they were back in the old days. I suppose I should expect as much with a producer known for his work with MercyMe (now there’s a bland adult contemporary “rock band” almost completely unworthy of their A-list status if I’ve ever heard one). But I can’t complain too much. The fact that this is a significant improvement over their past albums should serve as a shocking reminder of just how low it’s possible for a squeaky-clean Christian rock band to go, artistically speaking.
If you’re getting a mixed message from me about To Know that You’re Alive, it’s because my feelings are mixed. It’s weird to actually be impressed by some element of a Kutless song almost 50% of the time as I listen through one of their albums. My reaction fluctuates pretty wildly from one track to the next, so there’s really no way to neatly wrap up the nature of the album overall in a single statement. The best way is to go through to individual tracks and marvel at the inconsistency of it all, which I shall commence with now.
1. The Feeling
Turn it up, feel the beat, and scream the lyrics you know
Keep it coming
The time is right, let’s unite to the rock and roll
They’ve got a good, old-school, headbang-inspiring sort of riff that jumps right out at you in the first few seconds of the album, so right away, you’ve got to figure Kutless is doing something right. Not only does the group manage to outrun the sluggish pace of their usual “rockers”, but they show a keen ability to go double-time with the beat during the chorus, giving the entire band a pretty good workout in what turns out to be a fun two-and-a-half minute blast of an opening song that seems designed to be an adrenaline rush of a concert opener. I’m just about ready to get excited and declare that Kutless has finally arrived at “legitimate rock band” status, until I listen to the lyrics… which are downright hilarious in the most unintentional way. Anyone familiar with the webcomic Homestar Runner has probably heard similar lyrics from some of their fake parody bands like Limozeen, who seemingly exist for the purpose of mocking songs like this one, that are all flashy rock culture catch phrases and zero substance. I’m not opposed to fun party songs that get fists pumping and excited fans bouncing up and down and playing air guitar, but just take a look at this song’s doozy of a chorus: “I cannot run away, the feeling’s gotta stay, while we rock all night long! (Hey! Hey! Hey, hey!) I think that we all know the reason that we show the world how real we are! (Hey! Hey! Hey, hey!)” And that’s mild compared to the verses. Come on guys, I’ve heard more eloquent lyrics from Jet. This song is basically all about how cool this song is, which has the unintentional effect of proving how uncool these lyrics are. Similarly, the band’s attempt to remind us that all of this thrashing about serves a higher purpose is torpedoed when they draw attention to “how real we are”. See, if you have to point out that you’re real, it only illustrates that you’re actually rather fake. I have three words for you guys: “Show, not tell”. And they had to go and dub in a cheering audience, just because they hadn’t already effed up the song enough. The upside is that this one’s gonna be really awesome as a downloadable track in the new Rock Band game – well, assuming nobody’s on vocals, anyway.
2. Sleeping City
Those who assumed Kutless could never possibly have any “artsy” aspirations are going to be in for quite a shock when they get to the second track, which is a minute-long instrumental filled with piano and reverb and strings and assorted moody sounds. As an intro to the next song, it ain’t bad, though by itself, it doesn’t really add anything of value to the album. The big problem is that they got so excited over their ability to actually communicate something without a verbal sledgehammer for a change, that they shoved it all the way up to track two and completely killed any momentum that they’d gained from track one in the process. Doh!
3. To Know that You’re Alive
The days have turned to weeks, but it’s not over
The bandages rewind you to where you’ve been
These memories will remind you
When life takes you out, will it bring you around?
“Sleeping City” concludes with a dramatic swell that bleeds into the first notes of this tense track, which turns out to be one of Kutless’s finest moments, possibly rivaling rare above-average moments in their past such as “Treason” or “Hearts of the Innocent”. It’s remarkably full-sounding, and 100% ready for an exciting action movie soundtrack… and this is not a criticism. Jon Micah’s vocal style fits this sort of song well – I can’t even find fault with his attempt at “hard rock” screaming here, which is a rare feat. We’ve heard songs from the band about somebody’s pain being for a reason before (most notably in “Better for You”), but this time I finally feel like we get a vague hint at the reasoning behind it – “you need to feel just to know that you’re alive”. While this lyric could likely be misinterpreted as advocating cutting or something crazy like that, I think any halfway-intelligent listener can probably figure out the proper context without Kutless having to name-drop and throw heavy-handed Biblical catchphrases at us and everything. It’s still a pretty straightforward song, but its slicing riffs and aggressive vocal attack get the job done, and the whole package here is remarkably solid, albeit still not terribly innovative by my usual standards.
4. The Disease & the Cure
Is there way to clean the sin off of me?
Is there anyone with a vaccine?
I’ll take the shot even if I bleed
As long as it can heal me…
The tempo stays fast and furious for this song, which almost resembles pop/punk in its style, until we get to the delicious thrashing of the guitar riff that leads into the chorus. Kutless is three for three thus far in the musical muscle department, and I remain impressed by that aspect of their musicianship. Here, the band compares the inability to forgive oneself with a disease, and the way they play the song communicates a sort of claustrophobia that fits well with the helplesness of the lyrics. It’s unlike Kutless to actually let a problem be honestly described as a problem for the majority of a song – they save the pat answer of “Jesus, please take it away” for the bridge rather than trying to wrap it up by the first chorus, and sure, maybe that’s still a bit obvious, but I’m glad that they at least made an attempt to make the song relatable. (Obviously I agree that Jesus is the solution to such problems, but I have real issues with the way that a lot of Christian bands, Kutless usually being one of them, tend to trivialize people’s pain by jumping to that solution so quick without respecting how difficult it can be to take that leap of faith.) Maybe the disease metaphor’s a bit overdone here, but frankly I’m just excited to hear words like “self-deprecation” and “uncomtaminate” coming out of Jon Micah’s mouth – Kutless is usually a lot more monosyllabic than this.
I started seeing who I am
The day my life with You began
You clearly solved the mystery
That finding You meant finding me…
Well, they went and botched things a bit here with the first “obvious CHR single” of the bunch. It’s pleasant enough to listen to, with its easy-going tempo and its subtle shades of The Police in the muted guitar chords, but then they go and ruin it with an auto-pilot praise chorus which amps up the strings and jumps too quickly to a cheery major-key mood. “God, I’ve fallen to my knees, I’m bowing at Your feet, I give You all of me, in You I am complete.” We’ve jumped too quickly from the midnight-hour desperation expressed in the previous few songs to pedestrian Sunday morning bliss. I’m not against hopeful expressions of praise, but earn it, guys.
6. The Rescue
There’s glass in the air I’m breathing
Somehow my heart keeps beating
‘Til You take me away…
Hey, that’s a fun intro. I’m a sucker for electronically chewed-up drum beats, or whatever the heck they’re doing there. It’s too bad that it devolves from there to more of the typical “post-grunge tempo”, and it’s even more unfortunate that the strings are still interfering with a song that’s supposed to be “harder” and doesn’t really have a good place to fit them in, but there’s still some solid riffing from De Partee here. Plus there’s that old standby lyrical snippet, “You take me away”. Why are so many songs in this genre about things or people being taken away? The musically inspired bits butt up against the cliche bits (complete with a “rap” break that isn’t quite as laughable as the one in “Your Touch”, but still seems a bit out of place), and what it adds up to is another slight misfire that could have been a solid rocker on par with tracks three and four. They’ve got a good ending to this one, though, with the drums bringing the song crashing to a halt, classic “big rock show finale” style, so that counts for something.
7. Promise You
I can’t deny these thoughts of hate
The poison adding to my shame
Forgiveness can’t take scars away
But I forgive you anyway…
I’ll admit that based on the title, I fully expected an utterly barf-worthy song of mush comparable to the previous album’s “Promise of a Lifetime”. But Kutless is talking about a different kind of promise here – rather than regurgitating the usual cliches about God’s eterenal promises, they’ve got a damaged human relationship on their minds. A slithering electronic undercurrent adds a bit of a creepy element to the song as Jon Micah sings about someone he has trouble forgiving. This a song where the various elements that might normally serve to make their musical feel clinical and uninspired – the drum programming, the strings, the other bells and whistles thrown in by the production team – actually add to the drama of the song rather than detracting from it. Sure, you’ve still got your cliches about taking the pain away and saying goodbye and finding one’s way, etc., but I have to admit that a line like “Forgiveness can’t take scars away, but I forgive you anyway” packs a punch without needing to be verbose or poetic.
8. Guiding Me Home
I’m finding my way back to your shores
Where there’s safety and shelter from the storms
And it’s here that you’re waiting for me…
Oh, UGH. We’ve reverted to the absolute worst of the band’s mushy tendencies from back in the days of Strong Tower, a.k.a. the modern rock worship album that was almost entirely afraid to actually rock. I don’t mind hearing Kutless whip out an acoustic guitar every now and then – “Sea of Faces” and “Jesus, Lord of Heaven” weren’t too bad – but combine it with the mid-tempo, adult contemporary-friendly, overproduced mush that the rest of the band is using to paint by numbers, and the obligatory string section, and it’s easy to see that there’s nothing remotely new here. I have to tune out as soon as we get to the anviliciously teary-eyed line, “You say that You love me always and forever” that starts off the chorus. This song is easily the worst offender of the new batch – it embodies a sound and lyrical style that I would gladly beg Kutless on my hands and knees to leave in the past.
9. Overcoming Me
Maybe I’m a dreamer
And it seems that I’m lost within my mind
Searching for the moment dreams and destiny collide
I just need You to love me…
Another above-average rocker shows up next to save the day – in addition to some quick and catchy drumming from Jeff Gilbert, there are these fun little synth rips that give the song a different flavor from your usual Kutless outing. This is a good example of Kutless being entirely reverent and optimistic and not at all moody, and yet still making an enjoyable song that isn’t completely embarrassing to listen to – somewhat akin to “Somewhere in the Sky”, but without the awkward screaming during the bridge. They even pull off a slight tempo change that makes the song even faster and more frenetic midway through, and here, not even a misplaced string section (seriously, guys, does every song need strings?) can derail it. It’s similar to the old-school Skillet song “Whirlwind” in the way that it captures the utter futility of trying to resist God – it might not match that song in its lyrical scope, but the feeling of the music is similar. Bonus: They pull off a really slick electronic/acoustic transition into the next track, something that I’d actually expect to hear on an album by their old buddies in Falling Up.
10. I Do Not Belong
When the world is behind me on the day that I breathe my last
In the face of eternity, there’s hope ’cause I believe
When I look to the heavens and the future that You hold
It makes it easier to see beyond today…
Dave Leukenholter‘s bass and (yet another??!?!) string section pick up immediately where the previous song faded out, continuing in the same key and at a compatible tempo to “Overcoming Me”, while changing up the mood to much more of a relaxed song. I won’t deny them the credit for that one – this took talent. Unfortunately, any goodwill they earned with that excellent segue gets torpedoed by another mushy mid-tempo song that just floats on by with its dreamy-eyed pining for Heaven. You’ve heard this sort of “This world is not my home” escapism from plenty of Christian rock bands before, and while I can’t argue with the theology here, I tend to think that it takes a bit more talent than these guys can muster to write such a song without making it sound like we kooky Christians just want to tune out the whole world and wait for Jesus to come whisk us away. Songs like this tend to overlook the fact that there’s still a reason for us being here and that it’s not really helpful to just look at the physical world as a place of sin, to be disdained and to sterilize ourselves against for the rest of our mortal lives. This sort of thinking just perpetuates the “country club” mentality in a lot of churches, and that’s a much bigger problem than Kutless could have caused on their own, but they sure aren’t helping. That said, Jon Micah’s vocal performance is actually pretty compelling for the type of song that this is. It could have been worse.
I’m not gonna wait ’til I’m out of time
Please forgive me if it seems like I’m out of line
I hope that you believe I’m not your enemy
I’m not the least bit concerned with my own way
But I cannot ignore the things I’m living for…
Some nice drum rolls and a lightning-speed punk rock beat get this one off to a great start – this one feels like an attempt to make right what “The Feeling” got wrong in the lyrics department, because it’s another song about playing your rock music loud and proud and using it to proclaim something of eternal value. I can take this one a shade more seriously than “The Feeling”, even if I’m disappointed at how the rhythm kind of backs off once Jon Micah actually starts singing. I guess I have to take some points away from it for showing the same kind of bull-headed “I won’t shut up no matter what you do to me” type of attitude as the idiotic “Shut Me Out” from their last album, but in general Jon Micah’s attitude here is more positive and less snide, merely stating that it’s not in his nature to be quiet about his faith, rather than showing any disdain for those who would try to silence him. It does its business quickly, finishing up after two and a half minutes with a fun riff that keeps circling back on itself, prompting plenty of fist-pumping from the audience.
12. Dying to Become
How can I let you lead me
If I’m a broken satellite
Wandering out on my own…
Wow, Kutless has almost gone industrial here! OK, maybe they did it by taking the most pop-friendly route they could, but I never criticized Skillet for doing that, so I can’t fault Kutless for marrying a creeping electronic beat to moodier passages with piano and – yeah, more strings. It works because they’ve placed a bit more emphasis on texture here – probably Pete Kipley’s doing, but still, it evokes the desperate mood that it intends to, and there are little bits of electric guitar and live drums popping out here and there that nicely counterbalance all of the production tricks with real human emotion. The lyrics are somewhat minimal, but they do an adequate job of confessing what it’s like for one who claims to follow Christ to feel like he’s been doing anything but acting Christlike. And hold onto your hats, folks – there’s actually a halfway decent guitar solo midway through! Oh, Kutless. I don’t know how you manage to get me so worked up over a display of musical competence that I’d consider to be an acceptable minimum for most other bands.
Clouds rolling on moving shadows
Over the countryside
A ray of light descends from the heavens
You’re presence fills the sky…
You were probably expecting one last mushy praise song at the end of this album, right? OK, well, you got what you expected. And to be fair, its use of light acoustic guitar, piano, and a syncopated drum beat helps to differentiate it from the anticipated mush – any Kutless album closer is going to be compared to such dreck as “Grace and Love” and “Arms of Love”, and that’s honestly not a difficult bar to jump over. (Then again, Sea of Faces closed with “It’s Like Me”, the rare Kutless track that actually made me feel some small measure of conviction. So they haven’t botched every single album ending. But I still can’t remember how Hearts of the Innocent ended for the life of me.) It’s a complete and utter flipside of the usual Kutless sound, but I like that the more stripped-down approach that feels more organic rather than the “spotlight on a solo piano or canned string section” approach that completely ignores Kutless’s status as a band. It might seem more authentic coming from a band whose usual style didn’t make this one feel like total whiplash, but I’ll give Kutless some credit, they’ve shown a bit more versatility than usual on this record.
So, let’s see… if we discard the rather incidental “Sleeping City” and figure that this album contains 12 full songs, I’d tell you that I could recommend four of them without feeling at all guilty about it, and maybe two or three others depending on your personal level of tolerance for cheese. That’s a way better ratio than I’ve gotten out of Kutless before – it’s downright commendable, in fact. But that’s still only an average display of competence in the long run – it’s because of the rather blah feeling that I get from the other half of this record that I ultimately can’t recommend it. I’ll say this much, though – they’ve shown enough promise that I’m probably going to have to find myself a new critical whipping boy. (It’s all good. 12 Stones and FFH are still around.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Feeling $.50
Sleeping City $0
To Know that You’re Alive $1.50
The Disease & the Cure $1.50
The Rescue $.50
Promise You $1
Guiding Me Home -$.50
Overcoming Me $1
I Do Not Belong $.50
Dying to Become $1.50
Jon Micah Sumrall: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar, piano
James Mead: Lead guitar, backing vocals
Dave Luetkenhoelter: Bass
Jeffrey Gilbert: Drums
Nick De Partee: Guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.