In Brief: “I Am” might attract all the controversy with its “f-bombs”, but it’s far from the worst thing about an album that shows promise at first, then takes a nosedive.
Criticizing a rap-metal band for having stupid lyrics is one of those “fish in a barrel” things – it’s so easy a critic could do it in his sleep, and it doesn’t take much insight to point it out. That’s not to say that intelligent music has never been made in the genre. Still, as far as musical trends that have come and gone are concerned, the late 90s and early 2000s when this stuff was most popular are probably destined to be looked back upon as an embarrassing sinkhole in the landscape of popular music. Now that the style has become passe, a fair number have bands have gone through growing pains trying to outgrow the genre trappings, often by jettisoning the rap altogether and just becoming poppy heavy rock bands. Others have retreated back into the underground, where they can be heavy and rappy if they want, and not care what present-day taste-makers think of it. It’s sort of funny, considering that rap and hip-hop are perhaps more mainstream now than they ever were, even to the point of shoving a lot of rock music off of the charts. But for whatever reason, we’ve reverted to a state where it’s uncool to mix the two.
One of the bands who had their fair share of time in the spotlight back when the rap-metal thing had really caught on was P.O.D. I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with them for over a decade now. Since the band members are Christians and they’ve always tried to be brutally honest about how their faith has played a role in delivering them from the seedier side of life on the gritty San Diego streets where they grew up, I’ve wanted to be supportive, because a lot of “Christian music” comes from a perspective of trying too hard to appear squeaky clean, and thus it loses its ability to connect with people. At the same time, I’m often embarrassed to put myself in the same category as these guys when they’ve had harsh things to say about other Christian bands they don’t like who I personally think are actually making intelligent music. Or just when they say dumb things in general, which happens depressingly often in their lyrics. Given the genre, sometimes I can shake it off and just go with the big, bone-headed fun sound, and not care about how silly the words might look on paper. But when they’re trying to be serious, and especially when they’re trying to go for an upbeat and positive vibe, they have this awful tendency of throwing out platitudes that are often twice as ridiculous as the ones frequently used by other bands they’ve dissed. I can admire the band for trying to grow and change over the years, for being open to stylistic evolution, and ultimately for coming to fully own the style of music that they enjoy making without caring whether it’s trendy enough to earn them another round of mainstream exposure. P.O.D.’s days in the limelight are most likely behind them, but there’s something admirable about soldiering on just because you love what you do. It’s hard to find a rational perspective on these guys nowadays – most critics are going to dismiss them outright as if the band were stuck in some sort of time warp, and their fanbase, dubbed the “Warriors”, will probably eat most of it up regardless, at for the ones who didn’t disown the band after they became more mainstream (or because they failed to stay mainstream). Either way, this group doesn’t tend to elicit lukewarm reactions. You’re most likely to either love ’em or hate ’em. I’ve been on the fence about them for a while, personally, but I can still go back to 2001’s Satellite, and despite the aspects of it that now seem dated, I can honestly say that I still find it to be a solid and enjoyable record, minus a few speed bumps here and there.
Unfortunately, the band’s 2012 album, Murdered Love, is a veritable minefield of reasons to dislike the band, perhaps their most inconsistent effort since they first went mainstream. I would have trouble even half-heartedly recommending it, because while it starts off with the sort of ferocity worthy of a long-running band’s eagerly-awaited comeback album, it falls off a huge cliff at about track 5, and never really recovers. I can’t really pin the problems on any stylistic changes – if anything, the sound of this record might be a notch harder than the smorgasbord of sounds heard on 2008’s When Angels and Serpents Dance, making it more of a consistent listen on a superficial level. Like Serpents, the guest vocals are prominent on a handful of tracks – these guys are committed to bringing in their very favorite icons from hardcore punk, metal, and rap groups that have been an inspiration to them, and they don’t give one good damn whether any of those artists meet the Christian subculture’s approval. I have to admire that even if the results are often mixed, because this approach can lead to a hard-hitting rocker with something compelling to say, just as easily as it can lead to an embarrassingly half-hearted party rap track or an ill-conceived rant. (Do you remember Satellite‘s most obvious misstep, the off-key punk/reggae jam “Without Jah, Nothin'”? If so, then I’m truly sorry.) All of those things happen on Murdered Love, and just in case you don’t have enough variance in your reasons to be frustrated with the band, they’ve throwing in some unconvincing tracks of the softer and more melodic variety as well. I know these guys can do “mellow” convincingly – see “Thinking About Forever” or the instrumental track “Eternal” – but they don’t manage it here.
Of course, if you heard about this album from a Christian media outlet when it dropped last summer, then there’s a good chance that all you know about it is that there’s a song which contains the F-word. Yep, the dreaded F-bomb, the big queen mother of all bad words (well, to us conservative Americans, at least). It’s truly funny how debates about “profanity” and whether music should be made “safe for the whole family” can overshadow an entire album or even an artist’s entire body of work when we Christians get a hold of it. Derek Webb dropping the S-word back in 2009 was already controversial enough; now we have the one word a lot of Christians are most uncomfortable with, contained in the chorus of a song that is specifically about the Son of God. It’s one of those things where part of me admires the band’s tenacity, for feeling so passionately about what they wanted to communicate that it meant more to them to use the vernacular of the seekers they had been talking about Jesus with, and not care who else it might offend. But then I hear the actual song, and I think: Wow, they decided this was the lyric that it was worth taking a stand over? I’ll get to the specifics when I discuss the song at the end of the album. But let’s just say that putting it at the tail end of an already exhausting and embarrassing disc does it no favors. I guess it makes it easy for your local Christian bookstore (are those still a thing in other parts of the country? Because they’re rapidly dwindling here in Los Angeles.) to sell a version of the disc that drops the track entirely, because hey, it doesn’t interrupt the flow of an already poorly-conceived album.
All of this is to say, if P.O.D. had just put out the first four tracks of Murdered Love as a teaser EP and then spent another year or two honing the quality of their material rather than throwing out such a mish-mash just to keep their name from lapsing into total obscurity, they might have been able to reach the not quite brilliant, but still enjoyable heights of Satellite again. Even something on the level of Testify would have been fine by me, but there I go sounding like I want the band to be more mainstream, when really the issue is just that I want them to have some form of quality control. Going at it with pretty much total independence, the results are tending more and more towards “train wreck” as the years wear on. There are such glaringly stupid moments in most of these songs that I feel compelled to point out a “Choice Moment of Stupidity” for each. In most cases, it’s a lyric where I can see that lead singer Sonny Sandoval means well, and it’s just his terminal lack of eloquence coming back up to bite him at the worst possible times. But those moments provide the overall hilarity that make it a true challenge for me to listen all the way through the album while keeping a straight face.
If, like me, you’re compelled to automatically dismiss anything that substitutes the letter “z” for “s” when denoting a plural, then you might think this song is stupid before you even hear it. The funny thing is, it’s actually reasonably good. Jamey Jasta of the band Hatebreed shows up here, to deliver a fairly hard-hitting blend of punk and rap, which musically is a success, taking the pounding intensity of a fast drum beat from the punk side of the equation and transitioning it into a funky, snarling rap/rock groove, which is a better fit than you’d expect it to be on paper. Howard Benson‘s production keeps the sound crisp and loud, and while he’s known for being the producer that made P.O.D. more “pop”, there’s really very little about this song that I’d consider melodic – it’s pure aggression and adrenaline, all shouted and screamed. Fittingly, the song that opens the band’s comeback album describes a much more eventful comeback – the second coming of Christ. As portraits of the apocalypse go, this is definitely one of the grittier ones, and it’s actually surprisingly blunt for a band who, for most of their career, has had a lot of crossover appeal. It’s as militant as a lot of really old school Christian rock and metal, which is startling, but the sound of it fits this sort of thing well, so while I don’t expect the non-religious folks in P.O.D.’s audience to react all that well to it, I think it’s actually rather well-written and performed by the band’s own standards (really, for this sort of thing, I’d expect them to do far worse).
Choice Moment of Stupidity: “And you will answer for yourself whether you like it or not!” … A bit heavy on the fire and brimstone, eh guys?
2. Murdered Love
I might be going against the grain on this one, especially considering the criticism I’m preparing to dole out for the latter two-thirds of this album, but I can honestly say that the title track is one of P.O.D.’s best songs. Like “Eyez”, it’s unapologetically religious, but this time around it’s looking back at Christ’s cruicifixion, focusing in on the brutality of this action against a man who, according to Christian beliefs, was the very embodiment of love and purity and salvation. Sick Jacken of the hip-hop group Psycho Realm contributes chorus vocals here, and while they don’t amount to much more than playing hype man to back up Sonny’s fierce rant, it’s a far better contribution than the one Psycho Realm made to the ill-advised “On the grind” a few albums back. Marcos Curiel‘s riffs, while simplistic, are hard-hitting and guaranteed to get a crowd moving, and even the strangely stuttered delivery of the verse lyrics seem to add a significant amount of punch to the violently poetic lyrics: “Exterminate the absolute/Stain the just in the bloodbath/Waste the pure, butcher the divine/Annihilate the sunrise.” Even though the name “Jesus” is never mentioned, context makes it pretty clear when spoken word turns to a frantic scream during the bridge: “Remember me when You step into Your glory”. One gets the impression that Sonny identifies with the thieves hung beside Christ, understanding that the consequences of his own filthy deeds were taken out on this innocent man. Man, why couldn’t P.O.D. have written this song back when all of that Passion of the Christ hype was going down?
Choice Moment of Stupidity: This might be the one song where I honestly can’t find any. The screaming will sound bone-headed to some, but that’s normal for P.O.D., so no point in specifically picking on it in this particular song.
here, the more melodic, soulful elements of P.O.D.’s sound begin to creep in, blending guitar riffs that are a little more colorful and a little less repetitive with a confident rap verse, and one of P.O.D.’s better sing-along choruses. Benson’s production probably contributes a lot to the strength of such a chorus, since Sonny can never really pull them off when performing live, so some of the group’s more hardcore fans may still groan about more positive, feel-good songs like these are examples of the band selling out. And sure, this one isn’t brilliant. It’s all about vague self-realization, life being a gift and moving on to a higher plane of existence and so forth. Basically, everything that you could have accused “Alive” of being. And I still think “Alive” is a pretty solid song, cheesy as it may be. So I can’t really fault this one for putting me in a similar mood, even if the lyrics are a bit too generic for their own good.
Choice Moment of Stupidity: “My life is sketched out on these pages like a map/Been good, I’ve been bad but it shows you where I’m at/Look real close, it’ll show you how to find/The treasure of your soul, one love divine.” … So wait, are you talking about your map, or mine?
4. Lost in Forever
If “Higher” brings back happy memories of the Satellite days, then this one most definitely echoes the sound of the Payable on Death era, a rather awkward phase in the band’s career when they were trying to make good on their newfound mainstream appeal while also dealing with the impending death of rap-metal’s popularity by rapping a lot less and singing a lot more. I actually sort of like the half-singing, half-rapping approach taken here, which combines with Marcos’s fiery riff and some solid drum work from Wuv Bernardino to give the song an irresistible 6/8 groove that reminds me of the first time I heard “Sleeping Awake” or “Will You”. The result is an incredibly solid single that asks basic, but honest questions about the afterlife and whether we can even comprehend eternity from the vantage point of the tiny sliver of it that is a man’s mortal life. This one’s slick enough to maintain its appeal with a pop/rock audience, while throwing in its screams and more aggressive elements where they will resonate the most as the song’s chorus reaches a fever pitch. It’s not necessarily new territory for the band, but they sound more convincing here than they have in a good seven years, so I’ll also stick this one on my list of all-time favorite P.O.D. songs.
Choice Moment of Stupidity: “It just goes on and on and on and on!” … It’s not so much the line itself, it’s how utterly fascinated he sounds. Has no one ever explained the definition of “forever” to you before, Sonny?
5. West Coast Rock Steady
Here’s where things start to get rather idiotic. It seems that the group has to have one of these “SoCal party songs” on nearly every album – they embarrassed themselves with “Kaliforn-Eye-A” on the last album, and with “Execute the Sounds” well before that, and shoot, even “Rock the Party” sounds kind of corny to me nowadays (though to be fair, that was the first P.O.D. song that I remember liking). It’s just such a cliche to go on about how awesome California is and how we’re gonna show up with our crew to represent and et cetera ad infinitum after they’ve already done this enough times to make a cut-and-paste formula out of it. To be fair, they manage to do it with a killer groove nearly every time, and the blend of funk rock and gangsta rap that they came up with here is enough to get some serious head-bobbing going – I can’t resist it, despite the song being as dumb as it is. Sen Dog from Cypress Hill shares the mic with Sonny here, and it’s a welcome addition to a song that I’m sure could be great fun in a club environment where people just ignore any lyrics that aren’t in the chorus anyway. But once you get a look at those lyrics, the whole thing just goes to crap. It’s a cheap way to get a hometown audience riled up without really saying much of anything specific that doesn’t apply to any other city or state’s music scene, so it comes out on a level of intelligence just barely above Katy Perry‘s “California Girls”. (Hey, remember when Katy Perry sang backup for these guys, a few years before she was famous? Yeah, that weirds me out, too.)
Choice Moment of Stupidity: “With all these California girls, how could you not be straight?” … Wow, you guys really don’t get how sexual orientation works, do you? By that logic, shouldn’t the hot girls all be gay for each other, too?
Well, it’s time to prove that P.O.D. can do sensitive slow songs too, so how about an uninspired power ballad that oughta make them sound all deep when they’re invited to play at some unplugged event and this is just about the only tune that will fit the format? Anything remotely funky, rappy, or otherwise true to P.O.D.’s roots gets quite suddenly excised in favor of a merely passable “mellow” guitar riff and a thoroughly unimaginative pop chords progression mixed with the most insipid lyrics imaginable about how someone is beautiful and it’ll all be OK someday and that’s why they shouldn’t commit suicide. No, really. We’re talking like, James Blunt levels of insight on a person’s beauty and overall worth here. Now I know they’re not just talking about physical beauty, but they hit the vague platitudes about life being precious and all that so hard that there isn’t much room left for actual insightful observations about this person’s value. The result is a song packed to the brim with “fake depth” that could have been recorded by just about any flavor-of-the-month pop/rock band in the late 90s or early 2000s.
Choice Moment of Stupidity: “Every boy and girl sing this song/When we sing ‘Why-o’.” … Tacking on that “o” at the end just seems like a half-hearted attempt to reggae-ize the vocals, and it doesn’t work in an otherwise bland, middle-of-the-road pop ballad.
7. Babylon the Murderer
Here we go from a song about encouraging someone not to slit their wrists or blow their brains out, to a song about brutal, vindictive murder. Screw context, right? Nobody cares about that stuff when a band can sound so hardcore with their faux-reggae chants and tough, posturing statements like “I’ll pull my trigger and light you up.” Now to be fair, this isn’t just about random violence, it’s about God wiping out injustice and dealing out judgment to those who have enslaved and slaughtered their fellow men. This sort of thing would make sense in context of the album’s first few tracks, but for some reason, it’s here instead, with four songs of vague positivity and party time to completely separate it from the songs that would help it the most to make sense, say to someone who doesn’t know what point of view this song is coming from. Without reading that meaning into the song, it comes across as a bit callous and poorly timed – which is really too bad, because buried somewhere within it is one of Marcos’s most inspiring electric guitar solos.
Choice Moment of Stupidity: The gunshot and other violent sound effects that can be heard during the chorus. Pardon the pun, but it’s overkill.
8. On Fire
This one’s half righteous anger, half over-the-top braggadocio. I’ll admit to getting uncomfortable when Christian bands mix the two, because it can sound like they’re bragging about having arrived at righteousness by their own merits. I know P.O.D. doesn’t really believe that… they’re just bad at articulating the most basic points of their faith sometimes. This one’s all about being on fire for the Lord, unsurprisingly, and while it once again falls into the category of solid headbangers as far as the musical performance is concerned, there’s a certain level of meat-headedness to it that I just find plain embarrassing when I see that sort of personality coming from Christian musicians. Plus, they couldn’t even come up with a decent rhyme for “Fire” in the chorus, so they just rhyme the word with itself. Awful.
Choice Moment of Stupidity: “Stop, drop, roll, I’m on fire.” … Did I mention that this is the main chorus hook? I’ll be sure to follow these fire safety instructions next time I’m visiting a Charismatic church and the laying on of hands begins.
9. Bad Boy
Here’s the absolute low point, ladies and gentlemen. Or the high point of hilarity, if you’re like me and enjoy a little schadenfreude at the expense of an inept songwriter every now and then. What passes for a funky, sexy love song in P.O.D.’s imagination turns out to be the most embarrassing trainwreck of a song that they’ve written since… well gee, I don’t even know when. I might even take “Without Jah, Nothin'” over this one. The funk/rock mix reminds me of “Kaliforn-Eye-A”, which sound-wise isn’t a terrible world to inhabit. But as Sonny begins to rap about the ideal woman that he wants to take home to meet his Momma, the faux pas begin to pile up fast and furious. It’s easier to just list off the cringe-inducing moments here and tackle them one-by-one in list format, so that’s what I’ll do.
Choice Moment of Stupidity #1: “And girl, I’m looking for a love that’s true/Not some other ho to do.” … Because there’s just no better way to woo your future wife than by reassuring her that she’s not a ho.
Choice Moment of Stupidity #2: “But when it’s all said and done, I need more than a hit and run/But don’t get me wrong, you could be real fun/But it’s time for me to find the one.” … Is it just me, or are there too many “buts” in that sequence? Sounds like he’s got one of those “angel on one shoulder, devil on the other” sorts of situations going on here.
Choice Moment of Stupidity #3: “So I’mma wife you up and make it right/Gonna turn you to a freak tonight, come on!” … So wait, is the “wifing up” part happening tonight, too? If so, that’s an awfully brief courtship. “Good girls” presumably don’t get freaky before their wedding nights.
Choice Moment of Stupidity #4: “You know that I’m a bad boy and I wanna good girl/To share my world and show you how I do it!” … Um, yeah, so maybe “do it” isn’t the best turn of phrase in this context.
Choice Moments of Stupidity #5, 6, and 7: “Undying love, that’s what I’m after/Like Mark Anthony and Cleopatra” … Um, they married to form a political alliance and ultimately committed suicide, so that sort of nixes the whole “undying” thing … “I need a girl who’s down to ride/I need a Bonnie and I can be your Clyde” … Criminals who were ultimately shot to death, there’s a good set of role models… “I wanna girl I could love to death/Like Romeo and Juliet.” … Wow. Again with the suicide thing. Enjoy your week-long whirlwind romance while it lasts!
Choice Moment of Stupidity #8: Realizing that Sonny has been dedicating songs to his dead mother ever since the band’s early days. So, how exactly would you take a girl home to meet her?
10. Panic & Run
Another punk-influenced song here, colliding head-on with reggae in a strange synthesis of sounds that doesn’t work quite as well as it’s worked for P.O.D. at other times in the past. They’re mostly retreading the same ground on this one… the world is ending, Babylon is going to be destroyed, don’t be one of the masses left behind, so on and so forth. And their advice is “This is a state of emergency/So don’t hang around, don’t be caught, panic and run.” So really, all this talk of Christ coming to judge, and being on the right side and all that in the other songs, and now all you’ve got to say is basically “Just get the hell out of there?” That’s just lazy songwriting. The song goes into a slow, heavy breakdown in the bridge, as if they’d gotten bored with the speedy pace of it and just felt like screaming for no reason. “We must never let the dream die!” I never find it convincing when scream-heavy bands do that to slower tempos. It’s just unnatural. When people scream things, they don’t scream them slowly, unless they’re overly hammy actors in really bad made-for-TV movies.
Choice Moment of Stupidity: The birds peacefully chirping at the beginning of the song, which has jack-all to do with anything.
11. I Am
This one really should have been P.O.D.’s magnum opus, the song that got them all talking. As a grand finale, it’s easily as hard-hitting as anything the band’s closed an album with since “Portrait”, and it snags me early on with its highly uncomfortable, spoken-word lyrics that jettison all pretense of piety, identifying with the criminals and sexual deviants and so forth who, if Jesus dying on the cross meant anything at all, are every bit as salvageable as the rest of us. By identifying with people whose presence would probably make your average well-dressed Sunday morning crowd squirm, they make a pretty powerful statement: “I am the murderer, the pervert, sick to the core/I am the unclean dope fiend, I am the wh*re/I am the beat down, mistreated, sexually abused/I have violated, fornicated, and sexually used.” This list of transgressions piles up until we reach the chorus, which asks some very honest questions: “Are you the one that’s come to set me free?/’Cause if you knew who I am, would you really wanna die for me?” Being in that place of feeling like you’re so low and you’ve done so many horrid things in your lifetime that no one could ever love you or save you is a truth that some folks who have been delivered from these things understand far better than many of us who have been Christians our entire lives but think that we’re all-around nice and good people who only sort of needed a little bit of saving. So this song needed to be written, and while it hits pretty hard for the group to drop the f-bomb right after acknowledging the Son of God, it nicely sums up the amount of frustration and desperation that I think most of us would feel if we really dared to grapple with the darkness our hearts are capable of. However…
Choice Moment of Stupidity #1: “I know you are the one and only son of God, but tell me, who the [kcuf] is he?” … You know, that’s actually a pretty good question, given that every other lyric in the song refers to either “I” or “you”, with no third party ever mentioned. So this person whose identity you’re so anguished over? I don’t even know which individual you’re asking about, which just makes the whole thing annoyingly irrelevant, rather than it coming across as the hard-hitting question you intended it to be.
Choice Moment of Stupidity #2: The f-bombs are backmasked. More than that, they’re backmasked poorly, to the point where the same effect on an echoing background vocal also flips around a snippet of Sonny’s lyrics in the foreground, exposing this as a very cheap last-minute saving throw done once the song was already completed, rather than just applied to a single vocal track in the studio. That implies a last-minute cop-out that nearly renders the entire song inert, because it’s like the band felt so strongly about valuing honesty over decorum that the word absolutely had to be in there, but then they caved to avoid offending the very people who they were trying to get the point across to. I’m not necessarily saying that leaving the word in there uncensored would have been the best approach – I’m just saying they should have decided upon a stance and gone with it: Either this is so important that we don’t care who it offends and we’re not backing down, or else we do care about offending that audience, so we need to find a better way to say this that still packs the same amount of punch.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Murdered Love $1.75
Lost in Forever $1.75
West Coast Rock Steady $.50
Babylon the Murderer $.25
On Fire -$.25
Bad Boy -$1.25
Panic & Run $0
I Am $.25
Sonny Sandoval: Lead vocals
Marcos Curiel: Electric and acoustic guitars
Noah “Wuv” Bernardo: Drums, rhythm guitar
Mark “Traa” Daniels: Electric and acoustic bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.