Album: American Prodigal
In Brief: The genre mash-up works a lot better here than it did on Neon Steeple, feeling more like a statement of identity than a mere gimmick. What Crowder may lack in lyrical specificity, he more than makes up for by bringing urban and rural sounds together in intriguing ways.
Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of American music? Rock & Roll? Country? Blues? Hip-hop? Gospel? David Crowder seems to enjoy all of these genres. Judging from his history as frontman for the eclectic David Crowder Band, he does some of them more convincingly than others, but I always appreciated how the band was willing to stray into genres that weren’t so much middle-of-the-road as far as Christian radio was concerned, if the band felt that it fit the song or even if it would startle the listener in a fun way. Since the band’s amicable split, Crowder has been more committed to the mixing of disparate musical styles than his former bandmates in The Digital Age. His first solo album, Neon Steeple, threw electronic dance and country/bluegrass sounds into a blender, to the point where it often felt like more of a gimmick than a viable new musical genre. I appreciated the attempt, and learned to love a lot of its songs beyond my initial distaste for it. His follow-up album, American Prodigal, eases up on the shock value a bit while diving more deeply into the “swampier” side of his Texas roots. Where electronic beats and other studio trickery get involved here, it feels more like an accent to a song rather than something that takes over the song itself, for the most part. What’s genuinely surprising here is that Crowder hasn’t forgotten that the American South also gave us Gospel music, and that its large urban centers have produced a number of notable hip-hop artists in more recent years. By way of a few guest vocalists, he now incorporates a little bit of this influence into his music as well. And while I can’t say how it would play to fans of those genres, coming from the perspective of someone who enjoys pop, rock and folk music, the new flavors mix in extremely well. Listening to this record for the first time, I was pretty excited about it, because the music seemed to be ducking a lot of the usual worship band cliches at a higher rate than I was used to from Crowder. It’s not often these days that I’m genuinely surprised by anything from this corner of the CCM market.
So everything’s good then, right? Total success on par with some of his old band’s best works? Well… no, but it’s at least as good as Neon Steeple. The main thing that seems to hold Crowder back as an artist is that while he’s perfectly happy trying on new musical clothes, he falls back on a lot of the same melodic and lyrical patterns. When this record mellows out a bit (probably for the sake of the safe, more radio-friendly stuff he feels he has to include on each album), I can almost predict where a chorus melody is going to go or how a line will rhyme. You can only talk about high-level concepts such as sin and forgiveness, and overcoming the grave, and all that good stuff you’re used to hearing from Crowder by now, so many times before it all threatens to become interchangeable. Even with the “swampier” sound that fans of the last album’s highlight “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains)” ought to love (including me – that was my favorite track on that album), it all starts to sound a bit familiar after three or four similarly-styled romps. And while the lyrical themes resonate a lot more when paired with southern-styled musical traditions, I find myself wondering after a while what might happen if Crowder were to get a little more personal with his lyrics. As a worship leader, that may be a tough road to go down if you want to keep your songs easy for a congregation to pick up and sing along to. But given the stylistic experimentation on some of these tracks, I’m not sure it’s gonna be a good fit for your average church worship band anyway, so at that point, what does he have to lose?
I’m probably expecting something from Crowder here that’s outside the bounds of what he intends to accomplish as a musician… I’m just trying to be constructive in terms of thinking of ways he can avoid repeating himself. That’s probably why I enjoyed the two guest spots where rappers show up on this record. Just due to the way those artists are used to communicating, they change up the vocabulary a little bit and put an excellent finishing touch on those particular songs. While I do enjoy American Prodigal overall, there are a few forgettable tracks, especially toward the end, once the biggest surprises have all been exhausted, and I find myself wondering if the full album experience might play better if this had actually been a fully collaborative record, between Crowder and several other Texan/southern artists from various genres that he personally admired. He got Emmylou Harris to sing with him on his previous album. Imagine what would happen if he used an entire record to bring generations of disparate musicians together. That could be really fascinating… or a spectacular trainwreck, for all I know. And to be fair, there is a lot of lyrical collaboration going on behind the scenes here; it’s just not something that is readily apparent upon listening to most of the album. I’m just saying I’d like to see a little more risk-taking in Crowder’s future as a solo artist, because the risks taken on American Prodigal generally do pay off, and make the “safer” songs pale by comparison.
1. American Intro
Much like the two song snippets that opened and closed Neon Steeple, we have a very brief, stripped-down intro track here, with just Crowder’s voice and a piano, which sort of reminds me of how “Come and Listen” opened the DCB’s A Collision. It sets up the image of a choir of angels singing hallelujah upon a prodigal child’s return, which will eventually turn up again on the much longer outro track… but that’s thirteen tracks away. Taken by itself, there’s not a whole lot going on here.
2. Keep Me
While the first full song on the album is a big-sounding one, it feels like a brave choice because it’s not the obvious big anthem that will usually come early on a Crowder album. With its more relaxed, syncopated rhythm, the banjo and fiddle sprinkled generously throughout, and a bit of an “outlaw country” vibe to it, Crowder effectively sets the stage for the story of a man needing to be set free from temptation. The devil seems to be calling at every turn on his journey, and this man knows he needs the Lord’s help to avoid giving in and returning to his old life. What Crowder may have sacrificed in terms of the usual crowd sing-along chorus here, he makes up with a lyrical delivery almost dense enough to border on spoken word or rap in a few places. One gets the idea that he was this close to featuring a guest vocal here and decided to save it for later in the album. Ultimately I like the way it all worked out with his own, sorta-creaky vocals telling the story. The fiddle outro and gradual fade make this one feel like much more of a “deep album cut”, so I’m a bit surprised that it got such a front-and-center slot in the tracklisting.
3. Run Devil Run
This dirty, guitar-driven, Southern-fried rocker probably couldn’t have landed anywhere else on the album but as a companion piece to “Keep Me”. It’s the more aggressive of the two, with a catchy pop-snap sort of programmed beat that, while fun, probably needs a bit more momentum from the live drums to really fit the mood of the song. I mean, if you’re gonna spend a song telling the devil to literally go to hell, you might as well not hold back on it. I’ve heard enough spiritual warfare talk from my upbringing in the Charismatic church to probably last a lifetime, so songs about beating the crap out of the devil aren’t really my first choice in terms of subject better, but I do have to say that despite the purposefully un-subtle, holy roller lyrics, Crowder pulls this off with enough class that it makes sense given its musical surroundings (which it not something I can say for the multitude of Carman songs I used to rock out to as a clueless teenager). This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do have to say that Crowder hit that sweet spot where it’s something quite different for him stylistically, and yet it feels authentic coming from him, given what we know of his musical interests and geographic origin.
4. My Victory
Well, bring on big worship anthem #1. You can tell from the opening piano melody that this is going to be a much more mainstream-sounding anthem. There’s still a little bit of banjo mixed in just to give it that Southern flair, but ultimately it’s a lot slicker than the songs that came before it. I don’t mind this per se, as this song was originally performed on one of the Passion live albums and Crowder simply wanted to give us a studio version. But despite how well the lyrics about Christ’s death equaling hell’s defeat and the observation “A cross meant to kill is my victory” strike me as reasonably well-written, I get this nagging feeling when the chorus melody rolls around that I might as well just start singing “I Am”, one of his big worship hits from Neon Steeple. Frequent lyrical collaborator Ed Cash was on board for this one, and due to how many songs he’s written with both Crowder and Chris Tomlin in the past, it’s getting to the point where nearly anything with his name on it seems to have that “design by committee” feel where you can tell in advance all of the expected praise song tropes it’s going to throw at you. I wouldn’t complain if/when this one turns up in Sunday morning setlists at my local church (it’s got to be only a matter of time). But it’s not a track I’m particularly excited about when it comes up on the album. Perhaps that’s just because I’m impatient to get to…
5. Prove It
Love it. LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT. I’m pretty much transfixed as soon as Crowder and his band get rolling with a Southern-fried mix of harmonica, banjo, electric guitar, and a stomping programmed rhythm. This may feel like the same basic gimmick that’s already been used earlier in the album, but Crowder ups the ante here with a full-throated chorus of “If you’re free, prove it!” that makes the song feel more like a call to action for Christians to be an agent of change and not just content to live in a system that enslaves the less fortunate with all means of injustice and the privileged with needless temptations. With just Crowder on his own, most of this would have to be inferred in the lyrics, but putting rapper KB on the bridge makes it explicit. (Uh, I don’t mean “explicit” in the sense you’re probably thinking… “abundantly clear” is probably a better term.) Here’s a few bars, just for a little taste: “No one is free on them slave ships/Only a slave would enslave men/Egypt is still in our nature/It changes faces, face it, who liberates them?” The way his verse flows against the 6/8 beat is downright thrilling, and he even breaks from it into 9/8 at the end, and somehow manages to come back around and meet back up with them without anyone missing a beat, all the while leaving a few spots for Crowder to shout back as the excited hype-man. They’re having so much fun denouncing tyranny together, and the result is one of my all-time favorite Crowder songs – not an easy accomplishment, given his former band’s legacy and the genre-hop from their established sound.
6. All You Burdens
This oddball track feels like it could have been one of the deep album cuts buried in one of the latter sections of A Collision. A slamming beat and plenty of acoustic twang are front and center, as well as a sassy electric guitar lick that I can only assume was the contribution of Oz Fox, the Stryper guitarist who co-wrote the track. Also contributing is former Family Force 5 bandleader Solomon Olds, who thankfully doesn’t crunk things up too badly (I was never a fan of his band’s overblown style). This sucker has a lot of energy for a rather short track, continuing on the theme of being set free from the previous song, and shouting a refrain of “We shall overcome!” And the verses are in 7/8 time, just to further throw off our expectations. My favorite moment is when the drums, guitar and what sounds like either a mandolin or dobro are thrashing about during the bridge, then it segues into this twangy little solo (in the same weird time signature as the verse), that suddenly skips a few times and gets cut off as if your laptop had crashed or something.
7. Back to the Garden
If I’ve learned anything from the structure of albums like A Collision or the DCB’s swansong, Give Us Rest, it’s that Crowder loves throwing in these occasional transitions that are purposefully jarring. The abrupt ending of “All You Burdens” suddenly cutting over to this slow, somber piano ballad is certainly one of those. I can appreciate the more confessional tone that this one’s going for, using the metaphor of Adam and Eve believing the serpents lies and getting kicked out of Eden for a man’s guilt over his own mistakes keeping him from communion with God, I don’t find its melody or the pace at which it unfolds to be as compelling as a lot of the other songs on this album. I sort of find myself having to be patient through it. There’s some interesting texture near the end when an electric guitar shows up to add a bit of haze over the top of it, and that helps set it apart from Crowder’s more typical ballad fare. Maybe my brain just disengages from this one because the slow rhythm of it is so rigid, when it feels like it maybe wants to try something a little more syncopated or “bluesy” to really convey its sorrowful, penitent mood.
And here’s big worship ballad #2! At this point, when I hear a banjo plunking along to the plodding, mid-tempo pace of an otherwise straight up pop/rock power ballad, I can’t help but think, “You guys can’t fool me!” What once would have stood out to me as unique instrumentation is now starting to feel like a tired way to liven up an otherwise average performance. I hate to say that when this track seems to turn a corner lyrically, finally putting clearer emphasis on sin and the need for forgiveness being due to the things I have done, not just that ol’ devil tricking me into doing them. If I expressed some amount of discomfort at all the devil talk earlier, that’s probably why – whether you believe in a literal malevolent being who wants to drag you away from God by any means necessary, or whether you’re simply personifying all of the evils and temptations in the world, scapegoating this concept as a way of telling yourself it’s not really your own fault can be an easy trap for a Christian to fall into. And I never construed the earlier songs’ lyrics as meaning Crowder had fallen into that trap, but it’s nice to get the clarification. Unfortunately, he lays pretty much every tired rhyme and lyrical trope on us as he can seem to come up with while trying to write a rousing chorus on how Jesus set us free from all of it. (For starters: “All of it” does not rhyme with either “sin” or “forgiven”.) Just as in “My Victory”, I can predict the chorus melody coming a mile away, and even when Crowder builds up some nice momentum during the bridge, I can’t help but feel as he alludes to some of his other songs, such as in the line, “No grave gonna hold God’s people”, that he’s just repeating himself for the sake of an easily emotionally swayed audience. It’s worthwhile to have worship songs that make us really examine ourselves and our need for salvation. It deserves to have a little more hard work go into writing a song about it.
9. Promised Land (Glory, Hallelujah)
You know how I sometimes get on Chris Tomlin’s case for recycling old hymns into rather pedestrian praise choruses? I almost leveled that same accusation against Crowder here. While I appreciate the twangy guitars and the slow, methodical stomping beat, I can’t help but feel like this is the hymn version of magnetic poetry, given how the phrases “There is a balm in Gilead”, “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand”, and even “My sweet Lord” show up (remember, there was a song called “My Sweet Lord” on Neon Steeple, so once again Crowder’s going back to a well he very recently visited. You can only rely on the energy built up by shouting “Glory, hallelujah!” so many times before you start to realize this well-meaning song has little of original substance. Thankfully, rapper Tedashii saves the day with his final verse, which is part rapped and part sung, and somehow manages to fit perfectly into the flow of the song while, quite mercifully, putting his gratitude into more personal words that give us a sense of a genuine struggle being overcome – the death of a child, life on the streets rolling with the wrong crowd, that sort of thing. As with KB’s verse in “Prove It”, I have to wonder why Crowder can’t be more specific about the struggles he’s overcome as a complement to this, instead of just slapping together common phrases from a bunch of hymns and calling it a day. Tedashii’s verse still makes this song a highlight for me, but if it had been put together as a story of two men with very unique experiences coming together over the common realization of how much they’ve been delivered from, it could have been a lot more powerful. Crowder, at least as a songwriter, dropped the ball here.
10. All My Hope
I normally think it’s incredibly gimmicky when a white artist tries to pull off a straight-up Gospel track on their album, or at least one that’s heavily Gospel-influenced. Crowder, despite not really having the voice for this sort of thing, actually manages to make it work by playing it 100% straight, with good use of a backing choir, the slow, deliberate sway of the song’s rhythm, and a suitably “churchy” chord progression on the piano. Maybe it’s just the way those accidentals come into play, and how strongly that contrasts with the typical chord progression you hear in contemporary worship music, that makes me realize how much the CCM genre is missing when it forgets about the debt it owes to Gospel music. I’m sure there are tons of Black Gospel artists who could sing circles around Crowder on a track like this one, and I do feel like there’s a missed opportunity to bring one of the choir singers to the foreground to really heat things up here. But I like the reverent and celebratory mood of this one. You really feel like you’re at a Sunday service with Crowder and his church family, and it makes me think of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s statement that 11 AM on a Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in America, which makes a song like this – an imperfect but compelling example of a black and white congregation coming together – feel like a sample cultural document of what more of our churches could be like.
11. Shouting Grounds
This one feels like it’s all brute force and no tact. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with what the song has to say – it’s just a simple celebration of being delivered from the grave and wanting to shout it from the rooftops, as if the joyous, resounding words and songs could level city walls like in the battle of Jericho. Normally I really enjoy upbeat, raucous songs like this, but for some reason the delivery of this one just feels tedious to me. The “stomp-stomp-clap” beat seems like the kind of thing that oughta get an entire sports stadium excited, and the electric guitars are suitably ragged and noisy, but the melody strikes me as repetitive and the beat feels rigid and sluggish, like the song’s trying to beat a hook into my head because it couldn’t manage to grab me with anything more articulate or original. I feel like something’s being dumbed down here just so we can rock out and have fun. Crowder’s done well with primal-urge type rock songs on the past, but there’s usually been some twist to them, either rhythmically or structurally, that kept them from getting repetitive. It’s not a good sign when I want a big, noisy celebration type song to just be over already after only a minute or so of listening to it.
While the 23rd Psalm is one of my favorite passages, rewrites of it in song form seem to be a dime a dozen in the Christian music industry, and Crowder’s co-write with Bart Millard of MercyMe doesn’t break any new ground in this department. It’s basically an easygoing adult contemporary arrangement with a little banjo and fiddle to liven it up a little. You could put this alongside a few of my favorites from Jars of Clay‘s Redemption Songs and it would totally fit in. I don’t mind listening to it at all – it intends to give me that peaceful, easy feeling, and it works. But it’s not one of the album’s more memorable tracks when all is said and done – honestly after the first several listens, I had forgotten that there were even a few songs present between “Shouting Grounds” and the end.
13. All We Sinners
Another hymn-like entry is up next – this one’s more on the reflective side, softly plucked out on the acoustic guitar, with some instrumentation coming in later that gives it some slight Celtic overtones. Crowder could have been more imaginative with the arrangement here, but it’s still pretty. It’s interesting to me how, despite being an original song, the language he uses in the verse feels more poetic and old-timey: “On yonder hill, the darkness flew/The morning broke in light and dew/When day had come again anew/All we sinners sang”. And yet the chorus feels exactly like it does when one of those Tomlin types jams a simplistic modern praise chorus into the middle of an old hymn. It’s not terrible, but it seems like a step down from the verse that set it up. This song could work just fine for me with only the verses and some instrumental breaks. Not everything needs to come back around to an easily singable chorus, guys.
14. American Outro
The final track on the standard edition of the album circles back around to where the simple piano intro left off, with its cry of “Come on, hallelujah” opening up into something of a light dance mix that repeats the refrain “Out of the ruins, back to communion with You.” I like the way this slowly builds momentum over the course o five minutes, before gradually fading away again to close out the record. Lyrically, it’s insanely repetitive, but if you’re gonna repeat a single lyrical thought over and over, that’s not a bad one to close on.
This album’s long enough that I don’t particularly feel the need to go into great depths about the bonus tracks on the special edition, except to say that the cover of the unreleased Sean McConnell song “Praise the Lord” is easily the most thought-provoking thing Crowder’s done anywhere on this album. I have no idea why McConnell himself never released an album version of this one. The lyrics about thinking you could fit God inside of a box, and then finding joy and beauty in realizing you only know the tip of the iceberg concerning who God is, are exactly the kind of challenge that the comfy CCM subculture needs, presented in an easygoing acoustic folk/pop package. Why was this not on the main album when Crowder’s shown no qualms about jamming left-field cover choices in amongst his originals before?! The other two tracks are the folksy anthem “Great Rejoicing”, which has some nice fiddle work and some synth effects humming in the background, but is otherwise repetitive and forgettable, and “American I/O”, basically the first and last tracks from the album tied together in a single song and remixed by EDM musician BT. I actually like this mix a little better than “American Outro”, but since both repeat the same lyric for most of their duration, I find myself only wanting to hear one version or the other when listening to the album all the way through. Dropping the original mix and putting “American I/O” on the actual album might have been a better call.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
American Intro $.25
Keep Me $1.25
Run Devil Run $1
My Victory $.75
Prove It $2
All You Burdens $1.50
Back to the Garden $.50
Promised Land (Glory, Hallelujah) $1
All My Hope $1.25
Shouting Grounds $.50
All We Sinners $.75
American Outro $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: