In Brief: This monstrously awful disc is among the absolute worst of 2009. And this is coming from someone who used to like Skillet.
I’m not big on Halloween, personally, but this year I decided that it would be fun to commemorate the holiday with a review of a record that’s so bad, it’s scary. Not being able to get my hands on the sequel to Kutless‘s Strong Tower yet, I decided instead to go with a monstrously disappointing record by a band that I used to like. That band is none other than Skillet.
Now some folks wouldn’t see it as a surprise that I would find a Skillet album to be frightfully bad; the band’s recorded their share of embarrassing songs over the years, and I know a lot of folks who just can’t get into them due to the gravelly yowl of lead singer John Cooper. Others have difficulty handling the sudden whiplash that occurs when a blistering, techno-enhanced rocker with its “Nine Inch Nails, but Christian” attitude butts up against a mellow worship song or sappy romantic ballad, which was most prevalent on the group’s 2001 album, Alien Youth. And there’s certainly something to be said for the group’s lyrical decline, which has trended toward fist-pumping youth-group slogans over the years, despite initially being an intriguing and darkly poetic exploration of man’s sin and the violence of God (as seen in lyrics mostly written by former guitarist Ken Steorts on the band’s 1996 debut and 1998’s Hey You, I Love Your Soul.) Still, I’ve always found more about this band to enjoy than to not enjoy. Even their poppiest record in the early part of their career, 2000’s Invincible, had some convincing rockers, and despite changing musical hats enough to make taking them seriously a bit of a struggle, there was a part of me that always admired this band for letting their freak flag fly. They were an anomaly – a “hard rock” act with a 50/50 gender split thanks to keyboardist/backup singer Korey Cooper and former drummer Lori Peters. And when they decided to go full throttle and embrace their loud, abrasive tedencies on 2003’s Collide, it yielded their best record on a musical level (even if Hey You still contained their best lyrics). Each record was a mixed bag, sure, but I could usually guarantee my trick-or-treat bag would be filled with more of those yummy, individually wrapped chocolates with interesting flavors in the center than those boring old cany corns that quickly went stale.
That was the case until 2006, when Comatose demonstrated a marked shift in focus for the band. While the electronic elements were still present and Korey still took the mic for the occasional duet vocal, Comatose played out like a calculated grab at mainstream air time. This seemed unnecessary, given that their brief shot at mainstream fame came with Collide‘s “Savior”, a hard-hitting and explicitly religious track that I loved, but it still boggled my mind that mainstream radio stations were actually playing it. But my issue with Comatose wasn’t due to any reduction in religious content – it was that the unique personality that came through in their sound was largely reduced to more of a “typical modern rock” sound, with the usual chugging power chords, and a consistently boring style of mid-tempo songs or ballads that seemed so obviously targeted at high schoolers that I decided “WB drama” should now be considered its own genre, because it sounded like that’s what these songs were aiming for. Comatose was about a third highlights, a third unremarkable, and a third “what on Earth were they thinking when they decided to record this?” And the sad part about 2009’s Awake is that it basically takes the recipe for Comatose and cooks up another album with those exact same ingredients. Only this time, the highlights are few and far between, the just plain boring stuff comprises the majority of the album, and the rest goes decidedly south from there.
Now, if you’re still a devoted fan of Skillet after all these years (or more likely, if you just became one), you’d probably make the argument that I’m too old for this, that I’m not part of the target audience any more. And it’s true – Skillet’s music has always been targeted at teenagers and young adults, and I’m more than a decade out of my teenage years, so what would I know? Still, I think there’s a difference between your sound being naturally appealing to young folks because you’re making edgy rock music that incorporates influences from the popular mainstream music of its time (see the alternative rock, grunge, and industrial influences that made up their initial sound), and trying to force your sound to be appealing to teenagers by blatantly ripping off ideas from the groups they’re listening to. It’s gotten harder and harder to pick out these influences as my tastes have become farther and father removed from what’s popular on Christian or mainstream radio, but I still know a bad third-generation post-grunge ripoff when I hear one. (Nickelback comprises the worst of that genre, and now you’ve got tons of bands imitating them.) I know what these popular groups are at least titling their songs. I know desperation to appeal to an age group when I hear it, versus covering subject matter that is close to your heart that happens to strike a chord with that age group. And while Skillet has their hearts in the right place for wanting to tackle issues of faith and self-worth as experienced by the modern teenager, they seem completely oblivious to the ridicule they’re inviting for creating an album that is a complete ripoff of better ideas by mainstream bands that honestly weren’t all that great to begin with. That is, when they’re not just ripping themselves off. And you’ll hear plenty of that on Awake, too, right down to chorus melodies that you can almost literally cut and paste from tracks on Comatose.
So, sum all of that up and what do you get? A bad album by a previously decent-to-good band that, as much as I hate to admit this, is gonna be kind of fun to review.
For all of my griping about this album, it starts off on the right foot, with a driving rocker that might be a bit obvious with its action movie soundtrack aspirations, but that is enjoyable on the level of headbanging to sharp guitar riffs and singing along to the rapid-fire vocals (which find John Cooper and new drummer Jen Ledger ping-ponging back and forth in an enjoyable exchange of desperate pleas to not lose faith). This idea of portraying Jesus as a superhero who saves a person from themselves has been done to death – I even thought it was a cliche by the time my favorite band, Jars of Clay, tackled the subject – and you’re bound to hear shades of hits by groups such as Linkin Park or Evanescence that have mined similar territory earlier in the decade. But if a song’s gonna spout cliches at us, at least they kept the embarrassing lyrics to a minimum here (or at least it seems so, in comparison to most of the album).
Sometimes the power of suggestion can make you believe that two songs are similar even when they’re not. But sometimes they’re similar because one is truly a ripoff of the other, or because both are simply a ripoff of musical ideas that have been done to death. I had never heard Three Days Grace‘s song “Animal I Have Become” before someone told me that this Skillet track was frighteningly similar to it, so if it was just that one person who had pointed it out to me, I’d probably just assume it was a bit of a Rorsach test, and I was hearing what I wanted to hear so that I could confirm my suspicion about Skillet’s cheap ploy to appeal to a young audience. But honestly, anywhere I’ve looked up information about this song online (lyrics, music video, message boards, whatever) has been overrun with comments comparing the two songs, with the only defenders being people who happen to like both bands and who will point out miniscule differences that honestly take nothing away from the fact that the overall song structure, rhythm, musical style, etc. are too close for comfort. The meaning of the song is what clinches it – both Three Days Grace and Skillet have written your garden-variety “I hate what I’m turning into” sort of song, though of course in Skillet’s case, there’s more of a hint at the idea that a person can be redeemed from this. But this is Christian music, so that’s par for the course. (Unfortunately, so is ripping off mediocre mainstream bands.) I suppose I should give Skillet credit for one musical idea that they didn’t pinch from Three Days Grace – when they bring the chorus back after the bridge, they distort the vocals for the line “I must admit that I FEEL LIKE A MONSTER!”, which I guess is supposed to make it sound freakish and monstrous and whatnot, but instead it turns out to be quite laughable. This basically means that they took an already bad idea and made it worse with that little quirk.
3. Don’t Wake Me
Instead of actually writing anything meaningful about this song, I’m tempted to tell you to just click over to my review of Comatose and read my comments about the song “Don’t Say Goodbye”. Honestly, this is almost the exact same song – maybe it opens on acoustic guitar instead of piano, and maybe its tempo is just a hair faster, and shoot, maybe it even pulls a key change between the verse and chorus. But melodically and thematically, it’s the exact same thing – you could practically sing the chorus to one over the other. Given that “Don’t Say Goodbye” was already a warmed-over slice of mushy “slow dance at the prom” song to begin with, they’re not even recycling a remotely good idea here. Skillet’s written somewhat enjoyable love songs in the past – see Alien Youth‘s “Will You Be There?” or Collide‘s “A Little More”. I’m not sure why they feel the need to keep getting more and more generic in this department.
4. Awake and Alive
What better approach to take for the new album’s title track than to take the previous album’s title track, shuffle around the elements a bit, and masquerade it as a new song? Musically speaking, this shows a slightly more interesting side of Skillet, as Korey Cooper’s programmed strings bring a bit of that “cinematic” element that worked so well in “Rebirthing” and, well, “Comatose”. But wasn’t “Comatose” about being lost in a daze without God and wanting to be woken up? How did they think they’d come even close to getting away with writing another song that uses waking up versus being asleep as a metaphor for faith and resisting the world’s temptations? Once again, we have Jen handling the backup vocals, which were previously Korey’s domain. Jen’s voice sounds marginally more youthful than Korey’s, and both women are capable vocalists, but I don’t understand why Korey doesn’t seem to spend any time at the mic on this album. If this band wanted to do something different, they’d experiment a bit more with the three vocalists available to them, rather than just letting one woman at a time play a supporting role to John’s raspy lead vocals.
5. One Day Too Late
The funny thing about John Cooper’s ragged voice is that while it works for the aggressive, acidic approach that the group has typically taken on their heavier songs, it’s become increasingly silly as a vehicle for the mellower ballads over the years. I don’t know if his actual voice has deteriorated, or if he’s just increasingly tried to use it for styles of singing that honestly aren’t his forte. This mid-tempo track, which pulls all of the typical “power ballad” tricks, exemplifies the problem – it simply isn’t a voice that’s build for the major-key, youth-group, pep rally sort of stuff. It doesn’t help that this song (which is honestly easy to ignore if I don’t force myself to pay closer to attention to the lyrics) harps on the tired “make the most of every moment” cliche that seems to be a favorite of Christian bands who want to do the whole “be generically positive without offending anyone” thing, and even Jen’s interjections of “Tonight!” in between John’s lyrics don’t really add much in terms of hook value. I feel like this is mostly a retread of “Those Nights” from Comatose, but at least that one had some minimal replay value due to its slightly more personal lyrics. (It’s bad news when I have to describe the middling tracks from Comatose in a positive light by way of comparison, isn’t it?)
6. It’s Not Me, It’s You
While this obviously isn’t an artist who Skillet would imitate on a musical level, it’s painfully obvious that the idea for this song’s title came from Lily Allen – I mean, it’s what she called her album, for crying out loud. Get your own ideas for clever lyrics, guys. Anyhow, we’ve got a mid-tempo, riff-driven rocker here, which pretty much exeplifies Skillet at their bone-headed best, shouting down a negative influence (could be Satan, could be an ex-girlfriend, could be an annoying gym teacher, for all I know) and offering little nuggets of wisdom like “You were a poison flooding through my veins” while decrying “all the lies and stupid things you say and do”. This sounds like the typical teenage rant about their daddy issues, to be honest, and if we’re gonna go there, can I recommend another track from Comatose? It’s called “The Older I Get”. Or you can go back to the re-release version of Collide for “Open Wounds”, which is a bit more biting in its commentary on the influence of a bad father. (To be fair, though, if I’m gonna compare to a song from Comatose, at least the music and lyrics to this one don’t borrow from the same song on Comatose. The music is a bit more similar to “Better than Drugs”. And the lyrics are slightly less embarrassing than that one, so um… what grade is slightly better than an F?)
7. Should’ve When You Could’ve
Here, Skillet reaches the absolute abysmal depths in terms of embarrassing song lyrics. You can easily overlook the fact that the music is another typical major-key power ballad, because honestly, they could have come up with the most awesome music in the world for this one, and the lyrics would still have sabotaged the entire thing. Just in case we didn’t have enough of telling someone off in the previous track, this one’s all about sour grapes, as John makes all manner of bitter remarks about how a girl who turned him down is gonna be missing out big time. (Clearly this is a bit of role-playing, since he and Korey have been married for over a decade, but then, this is exactly the kind of misguided attempt to relate to teenage issues that I’m talking about. I’m sure a guy who had recently been dumped for real could probably write a better song – any of the bazillions of mainstream hit rock songs on this topic would be an improvement at this point.) Choice lines include the second verse, which makes the hubris-filled claim that “For a change now, you can start chasing me”, and then goes on to rhyme the word “thing” with itself when John follows up to say, “Don’t cry ’cause I ain’t your sure thing/It’s ain’t my fault you don’t know a good thing.” But the icing on the cake comes in the bridge, when I kid you not, he actually sings the words “Now I won’t be here to clean up when it hits the fan”. Which is just such a laughably horrible line that I don’t even know where to begin. I’m thinking of all these youth group kids who will probably get chuckles out of that one, understanding what the thing is that hits the fan and all, but who at the same time would turn around and accuse a band of not being Christian if the had actually used the word that was only implied here. (See Derek Webb.) Even without that, the pinnacle of heinous songwriting accomplishments, this song would still stand out as the absolute worst in Skillet’s entire discography, which is saying quite a lot, considering the one-two punch of “Stronger” and “Rippin’ Me Off” that made the back side of Alien Youth such a downer.
What’s this, an acoustic guitar riff? In minor key? And actually halfway interesting? No matter, it’s going to erupt into more mid-tempo power chordage before you know it. And like pretty much all CCM songs titled something as simplistic as “Believe”, there’s not much else interesting going on here, either. This song is apparently about hurting someone with your words, and then apologizing and saying you never meant it, and hoping they’ll believe that you’re telling the truth now as opposed to what you said earlier. Which I guess is sort of an interesting situation to try to put into words, but since Skillet does it with the most simplistic vocabulary possible, and John sings in a lower register than really befits his voice during the verses, this one’s mostly a minefield of awkwardness. It’s not bad enough to be offensive; it’s just plain mediocre and easy to forget about due to the atrocities elsewhere on the album.
So here’s another generic CCM song title to follow it up – and big surprise, we start with tinkling piano and some of Korey’s programmed strings, for what sounds like a slowed-down, dulled-down reiteration of a better track from Comatose. (I’m thinking “The Last Night”, but it’s getting to the point where I’m having a tough time telling Skillet songs apart these days.) This one takes the apology from the previous song and restates it as an apology from man to God, repenting of “All my promises and lies, all the times I compromised, all the times You were denied”, and all of the usual generic stuff that is one-size-fits-all enough to make sure that John’s confession is anything but hard-hitting. I honestly hate it when Christian bands talk about sin so generically. I’m not expecting a personal laundry list of the artist’s actual misdeeds or anything; I just feel like painting it with such broad strokes makes it seem really tribial and flimsy in comparison to some of the deep, dark secrets that people are holding who might comes across a song such as this. Songs like this make us feel like God’ll let go of the white lies and the times we skipped church to watch football. They don’t really get into the nitty-gritty enough to seem like they’d be convincing to a person who is dealing for a drug addiction or who just did time in jail or something.
This is the most convincing track on the album in which Skillet “goes dark” – they used to do this a lot more often, especially on some of Collide‘s better tracks. They actually risk ticking off some of the youth group leaders and parents whose kids will be listening to this song, since it’s one of the rare CCM songs that doesn’t try to wrap up the problem in a neat little solution at the end of three or four minutes. It’s simply a song that admits to total depravity and apathy, saying that sometimes it’s honestly easier to just sin, to enjoy sinning, and to not care about the consequences. I like this song, because it’s honest, and while the music is pretty much the straightforward bone-headed heavy riffing, it at least fits the frustrated mood of the lyrics. (Lead guitarist Ben Kasica actually gets in a halfway decent solo here – I haven’t been hearing much of that elsewhere on the album.) Christians love to pretend they’re squeaky clean and it’s those sinners out there who are really the ones in need of help – it takes courage to admit things like “I want someone to hurt like the way I hurt/It’s sick, but it makes me feel better”, or “Sometimes I find it hard to believe there’s someone else who could be just as messed up as me.” If more Christians could admit that they’ve struggled with such thoughts, then maybe the Church as a whole would be less judgmental. Good song – not amazing, but probably the most thoughtful one that this disc has to offer.
11. Never Surrender
Jeez, I’m getting so tired of having to describe this endless wall of power ballads with cheesy, generic song titles. I feel like this one is trying to relate to a young person who is struggling with an emotional disorder such as depression, and as I’ve stated before, I admire the attempt, but honestly, is there nothing more poignant you guys can come up with to say from such a person’s point of view than “Make me feel better, I wanna feel better/Stay with me here now, and never surrender”? Sure, if you know this is a Christian band, you can infer that this is a prayer of some sort that God will deliver the person. But take the lyrics at face value, and it could honestly be beginning for any person to “Make me feel better”. Interpret that however you like; Skillet doesn’t seem to care enough to describe in better detail what the actual hope of healing looks like.
The album finishes up with what wants to be a real tear-jerker of a piano ballad, which for a change, actually dares to be a little more specific, since it’s written like a letter to a young woman who has passed away, perhaps by her own hand, or perhaps as a result of poor choices made by the writer. He’s looking for closure, hoping to see “That little piece of heaven looking back at me”. It’s an admirable idea, and it could have been quite the show-stopper at the end of the album, but the band made two mistakes here. One, they revert to their typical “loud guitar and vocal” mode far too quickly, killing any emotional intimacy that the song might have had in favor of the “cheesy soaring strings and background vocals” approach. Two, the expression of regret is phrased in almost childish terms, starting with specifics such as laying flowers on Lucy’s grace (which is a good way to set the scene), but later only coming up with hackneyed phrases such as “Me and Lucy walking hand in hand/Me and Lucy never wanna end”. Why don’t you guys give us some more specifics about how Lucy died, about whose fault it was (or whether that’s a matter of debate), about what you’d do with her on a typical day if she were still here, etc.? There are several interesting directions that a song could take with such a premise established; Skillet takes none of them, but obviously still expects some sort of emotional investment from the audience. Sorry guys; I’m sure this song is probably based on a true story and that God used it to impact your lives in a profound way, but you’ve done zilch to communicate that effectively to your audience.
And that’s basically how Skillet rolls these days – they know what the basic ingredients are to create the desired emotional response in people who are probably too inexperienced with music to know the difference between art and marketing. Not that I’d have ever put Skillet in the “high art” category, but you know, they used to be able to create musical textures and turn phrases that intrigued me on some level. Nowadays, it’s a simple “Get from A to B” as fast as possible approach – if you want to pump up the audience, repeat a slamming power chord rapidly. If you want ’em to get teary-eyed, bring in the piano or strings and slow down the tempo. If you want ’em to get introspective, make vague allusions to your own self-hatred. If that means repeating themselves album after album until they get the point across, then apparently, so be it. That approach has made Awake a monstrosity, and if they keep it up, they’re bound to put out some real stinkers as the “millennial” generation ages, music trends change, and they have to find another way to rebrand their music which will likely lead them to sound even more generic and out-of-touch.
So sayonara, Skillet. It was fun being a fan for the better part of a decade, but now I’m going back to sleep.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Don’t Wake Me -$1
Awake and Alive $0
One Day Too Late -$.50
It’s Not Me, It’s You -$.50
Should’ve When You Could’ve -$1
Never Surrender $0
(Yep, that’s a negative number. Even Kutless can do better than this!)
John Cooper: Lead vocals, bass
Korey Cooper: Keyboards, rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Ben Kasica: Lead guitar
Jen Ledger: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.