In Brief: KMax once again proves himself to be more of a musical chameleon than a profound poet or a true innovator… but he obviously had a lot of fun taking a trip down memory lane on this heavily 80s-influenced album, and that makes the music quite infectious, even if it might not be terribly original.
Kevin Max was probably the very first vocalist I listened to, back when I first getting into music in the mid-90s, who struck me as enigmatic, artsy, perhaps even a little challenging. It seems quaint to say that now, given that my definition of “challenging” was a member of the Christian rap (and later alt-rock) group dc Talk who would improvise on his vocal melodies in concert, making his parts in their songs difficult to sing along to, and he’d tack the occasional poem or odd spoken word aside onto their records. He was the rare CCM singer who apparently wanted to be Jeff Buckley while Jeff Buckley was still alive. By the time everyone in dc Talk went solo at the turn of the century, I decided that Kevin was my favorite member – his solo debut Stereotype Be was certainly a hodgepodge of obvious mainstream influences like Sting and John Lennon, but those were pretty great influences to have, and it was en engagingly personal and mystical listening experience all at once. Since then, his trajectory as a solo artist has been… rather spotty. For every halfway engaging pop/rock album he puts out, there’s an ill-advised experiment such as a Gospel album, a holiday album, a few EPs full of nothing but cover songs, or his best-forgotten stint as the lead singer of a resuscitated Audio Adrenaline. It’s hard to take the guy seriously when he’s so all over the place, wanting to come across as an auteur unbounded by the sensibilities of the Christian music industry one year, and then kowtowing to their expected lowest common denominator with the hope of scoring a few radio hits the next. I don’t begrudge the guy for still singing openly about his faith after all these years. He’s been through a lot of personal turmoil and matured a lot as an individual, just as I have in the twenty-odd years since I first heard the guy, and he and I are both still Christians who have acquired a habit of kicking against the status quo when it all starts to feel too familiar and comfortable. His best records seem to not fit so neatly into the “Christian music” box, even when some of the songs are quite clearly about Jesus and others are simply about romantic love, or his time in the spotlight, or his travels or whatever. And that’s where his newest record, AWOL, comes in.
AWOL seems to be the rare Kevin Max record that I would describe neither as particularly challenging nor as hopelessly cliched. To be sure, he’s making no secret of his love for 80s music on this record, so he’s hitting a lot of classic tropes from that decade as he does his best impressions of The Cure, Duran Duran, U2 and so forth on several of these songs, as well as a likely handful of classic new wave artists I haven’t done enough of my homework to pick up on. Probably a lot of the same influences that The Killers drew from early on. (Which means that there are songs which contain an odd mixture of pulp novel tropes and Christian imagery, and there’s also a veritable buffet of friggin’ awesome bass sounds. I can’t complain.) Regardless of the obvious sources of musical inspiration, the songs strike me as honest and coming from a place of true creativity rather than checking boxes to please record execs, even when the subject matter is blatantly religious. There aren’t any weird, off-putting experiments in the vein of 2010’s Cotes d’Armor (the last KMax record I truly enjoyed before this one, though I had my reservations even then), and he doesn’t seem to bite off more than he can chew in terms of the genre-hopping (which was the downfall of his cover EPs, for the most part). It won’t change the world, but there’s some darn good synthpop, sophistipop, retro rock, or whatever the heck you want to call it on this record. It’s mostly upbeat, with only a few ballads, and while there are a few less inspired moments, they don’t linger for terribly long. It may well be the most listenable record he’s come up with since 2005’s The Imposter, now that I think about it. It’s not the type of record that’s gonna win Kevin a ton of new fans, and I think he’s probably fine with releasing music independently from his home somewhere in Michigan and not having to worry about the pressures of pleasing the CCM gatekeepers or relentless touring (the much-ballyhooed dc Talk reunion cruise last year notwithstanding). Bottom line, I like it. It’s one of the catchiest and most intriguing records I’ve heard this year. So let’s (pun incoming, for you old-school dc Talk fans) dive in.
If the opening bass notes and shimmering guitar chords of this song sound naggingly familiar to you, you’re definitely not alone. I’m no expert on 80s music, but even I recognize The Cure’s “Lovesong” when I hear it, and this song has so many moments that are uncannily similar to that one, to the point where you could practically sing one’s lyrics along to the other due to the chord progression being nearly identical. The weird thing is, I can recognize it as being dangerously close to a copyright infringement lawsuit waiting to happen, and yet I downright adore what Kevin Max has done with it. The lyrics are pretty immersive, hinting at a complex story behind the simple idea of two lovers who can’t wait to elope somewhere far, far away from the restrictive small-town culture they grew up in: “Sunday school books and haunted nooks/Heavy eyed judgmental looks/All alone, we go against the grain/We believe in God, we believe in faith/We believe in hope even when it rains/Never fit with the plans of empty pain.” I have no idea who he’s singing to, whether this tells his own story of being a young boy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or if it’s about relatives of his from a past generation, or characters from some epic novel he read once. But I’m immediately captivated, not just by his declaration of romantic love for this Melissa character, but also by his willingness to listen and let her confide in him about what sounds like a deeply painful past. Realizing that the song carries that sort of weight makes an otherwise corny rhyme, “Melissa/I’ll listen”, sound a lot more natural in context. What he’s promising isn’t as unrealistic as magically curing all of her problems, but rather a safe space to simply be known and understood. That means volumes more to this listener than the usual, unrealistic grand gestures that poppy love songs tend to be littered with.
2. Prodigal (Run to You)
While this song has the sort of title that suggests a more straightforward religious allegory, the kind that probably would have fit seamlessly on the subpar Broken Temples or the painfully cheesy Audio Adrenaline comeback record he sang lead on, the lyrics pretty quickly reveal it to be about something more complex and sinister: “T’was a wizard from 1809/He cursed my tree and my family line/’Cause he knew that I’ve been nothing but trouble/I got my cross, he’s got his book of hex/I got my love and he’s got nothing but vexing tricks/So said the prophetess.” I don’t even know how to process all that – this is some sort of fantasy novel-meets-The Crucible tale of wizardry clashing with good old-fashioned piety, where the two sides probably aren’t as black and white as the listener wants them to be. Sure, the chorus may well have been repurposed from what originally began life as more of a straightforward devotional song about running toward God and never looking back. But this context breathes so much more life into it, and it’s helped out immensely by the retro rock vibe, with the bass fantastically bouncing all over the pace and the overall motion of it being very fast-faced and fluid. The tone of it may be all dark and nostalgic, but there’s nothing canned or kistchy about it – this is a solid performance by all involved.
3. Glory Boys
Reverb-heavy guitars get replaced with synths here, on a track that seems to be having a total blast with its glam pop sound, as Kevin is found reminiscing about either the first time he was bedazzled by a favorite band he saw in concert in his younger days, or perhaps his own first brushes with stardom with dc Talk. I go back and forth on which interpretation fits better – I want to believe it’s the former when he sings, “The girls, they crowd around the stage/We catch them with our passion gazes” – but let’s be honest, groupies are a thing even in Christian rock, and Kevin’s confessed in the past to giving into that temptation back in his own glory days. Some of the lyrics about being “trampled on by parents fears” and trying to “break the mold” might be hints at the backlash bands like his got in the earlier days when Christians making rap and heavy rock music (extremely poppy by even mainstream standards at the time, but still) made a lot of parents and industry watchdogs uncomfortable. There’s a lot of fantastical stuff about being “Pirates of the new romantic dawn” and dancing to “touchdown radio” and other bizarre lyrics that I can’t even begin to unpack, so I’m not quite sure how seriously to take this one. Kevin and his band certainly have fun with it – I think there’s even a keytar solo in the bridge.
4. Half of the Better One
Wow, we’re going back to The Cure well already? Risky move, Kevin. Fortunately, even though he’s got yet another love song here that is structurally and melodically similar to “Melissa”, he once again comes across as so damn likeable and disarming with his lyrics and his velvety vocals that I can’t help but be taken in by it. (There’s also a melody line in here that sounds naggingly familiar to an old Starflyer 59 song I can’t quite remember the name of, but that’s more of an obscure musical reference.) This one’s more of a straightforward ode to marriage, and the colloquialism of calling your spouse your “better half” – he seems 100% convinced that his wife got the better deal here as he sings, “And when they say that two become one/I can safely say that I’m only half of the better one”. It’s simple and it’s sweet – just as the lyrics say – and while he throws a few fifty-dollar words in there such as “I feel so quintessentially free” just to make sure we all know it’s the same guy who did enigmatic poetry readings back in the day, this isn’t one of those lyrics that you’ll need to spend any effort puzzling over. It’s hard to go wrong with this one. It’s clearly destined with mix tapes – er, Spotify playlists – in mind, that will soon be compiled for our own better halves. Fans of Anberlin might dig this – and now that I think of it, I’d sure love to hear a Kevin Max/Stephen Christian vocal collaboration someday.
One of the more mysterious tracks on the album is up next, slowing the pace down to a somewhat brooding, but still bouncy 6/8, which once again gives the bass plenty of room to dance all over the fretboard. (God, I love how audible the bass is on so many of these tracks, and how it does so much more than just hold down root notes for everyone else to elaborate on.) I think there’s some theremin in here too, just to give it a touch of “old spooky movie soundtrack”, if that makes any sense. This one appears to describe some sort of clandestine love affair taking place on a train trip across Europe, but perhaps it’s not as secretive as its participants would like to believe, since people notice and recognize them and spread rumors. Such is the life of a celebrity in the age of the Internet, I guess, though we’ve probably had tabloids and nosy gossip columnists in some form or another since the golden age of steam-based travel. When I listen to this one, I like to picture some sort of shady spy business going on – maybe they’re undercover agents trying to sneak behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War days, and they’ve got fancy weapons and top secret dossiers and vials of poison and stuff hidden behind their long, stylish coats.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this introverted ballad that closes Side A of the record. It’s definitely more synth and keyboard-driven than the rest of the record, but there’s a dark and quiet ambiance to it, so the beats and the glowing, computerized sounds aren’t as prominent as what you would normally expect from a “synthpop” composition. Kevin’s lyrics, about a frantic search for someone he loves, could be taken as devotional or just borderline obsessive, depending on how you interpret them in light of the downbeat musical mood. For me, it’s one of the most cryptic songs on the album – I have no idea what it means for him to be someone’s moon racer, or what the spoken-word bit in the second chorus means when he proclaims, “You are my angel and I am your misfit king”. It’s brooding without being overly dramatic, low-key yet interestingly textured, and probably not the sort of thing that would grab most listeners the first time around, but a worthwhile change of pace on a mostly up-tempo record that I’m growing to appreciate a little more with each listen.
7. Brand New Hit
The big bass lines are back, along with some urgent, stabby guitars – there’s a bit of The Police lurking behind this one, maybe a little U2 as well. Kevin’s making a bit of meta-commentary on his own status as a legacy artist with the constant pressure to follow up past successes here – he’s been the least commercially visible of the three dc Talk members since the group split up, and throughout his solo career, the push/pull of doing his own eccentric thing vs. doing something more appealing to the CCM crowd has been glaringly obvious, which is what I think he’s singing about here: “I’m between two worlds/All the people from the past just want it to last/I’m between two worlds/All the people from the future want a brand new hit.” It’s an interesting sentiment, coming from a record that is neither a blatant grab at the CCM market nor an excessively artsy detour from his usual stuff – he’s mining vintage pop and rock sounds as he considers what another round of “shedding my skin” will mean for his future as an artist. While I’d describe the overall tone of the music as just plain fun here, there’s clearly some underlying frustration with the “same old business” and the fragmented audience he’s cultivated over the years, all of whom are never going to be satisfied at once, no matter what musical clothing he tries on for each successive record. being a musical chameleon is probably the main thing keeping him satisfied, so I suppose I can’t gripe too much when he establishes a sound that I really enjoy on one record, only to completely abandon it on the next.
the title of this song is the Hebrew name for Jesus, so unsurprisingly, this is the most straightforward “Christian rock” song on the record. It fits the choice of genre quite well, since Kevin’s got a bit of an early U2 vibe here, circa October and War, complete with a few passionate yelps near the end of the song that really remind me of a young Bono. (Side note: How is it that modern-day U2 can afford the most professional production money can buy, only to sound far too muted and safe on their newest record, while Kevin is doing this on a presumably modest budget without the help of a label, and yet nearly everything on this album sounds so sharp and vital?) The Messianic imagery he uses here as he sings from the point of view of Jesus wanting to be let into a person’s heart fits pretty neatly into the “tragic unrequited love” sort of mood of a lot of 80s rock songs, while the strong rhythm section and sharp guitar licks helps to keep the atmosphere more urgent, preventing this from turning into a schmaltzy “Jesus as your boyfriend” sort of ballad.
The title track might be the best example of how this album contains unabashedly Christian themes, but not in a way that panders to modern CCM tastes. It’s got the most rock energy of anything on the record, breaking out of the usual 4/4 for more of a rowdy romp in 6/8 time, with the distorted guitars sounding a little more “garage-y” this time around, mostly leaving the synths and keyboards behind, but still reveling in the vintage-sounding drums and bass. Kevin has always loved to cast himself as the outsider, and that’s never been more clear than when he puts his own faith at odds with the more safe and commercial considerations of an evangelical subculture that’s never quite understood what to do with him: “Your city is now a safe haven/For corporate hate media infiltration/It’s a brainwash game/bringing false news to you/A soft malaise, political crooks/The wrong interpretation of a Holy Book/Religion kills, yet Jesus saves, it’s true.” You can see why I’m on board with this one. It’s sharp, swaggery, and it’s probably going to step on a few toes. I suppose some might wonder if he’s really practicing what he’s preaching, in light of some of his attempts to re-integrate himself into the more commercial side of the Christian music world in the early 2010s, but I’m naively optimistic enough to believe that this song is a statement saying he’s done with trying to pander to those folks.
10. Irish Blood Up
“We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind…” Oh wait, those aren’t the lyrics. It’s just what comes to mind when I the unabashedly dance-y synth beat gets all up in my face at the beginning of this one. And it’s pretty clear that this song is a bit of a kitschy goof, purposefully designed so that you can tell Kevin’s intention is to have a little fun while revealing a different side of his personality to the audience, without wanting it to be taken too seriously. The basic conceit here is that his Irish heritage gives him a bit of a hot temper – don’t go pushing his buttons, or you’ll regret you ever tried. I figure this song needs the dance-pop atmosphere to avoid sounding too stereotypically masculine – this is less about starting fistfights and more about defending the people he loves and the beliefs he holds dear. There’s just enough of a self-aware wink and a nudge here to balance out the testosterone-laden lyrics – it’s got a similar vibe to “The Man” by The Killers in terms of how it seems to be poking a little fun at its own tough-guy exterior.
11. Cornucopia of My Soul
Kevin tries to close the record on a sentimental note here, but the results are a bit… corny. (As was that pun I just made, given the title… but come on, you know when you see the words “Cornucopia of My Soul” that you’re in for some bad high school poetry.) All of the edges seem to be rounded off as this ballad comes floating in on its bed of fluffy keyboard sounds, and while it might pick up some dramatic steam in the melody department, it’s still a difficult song for me to take seriously at the end of the day. Kevin can’t seem to decide here whether he wants to take a more eccentric approach or fall back in everyday language and romantic cliches, which makes the song feel a bit limp when his promise to be a faithful companion to the woman he loves essentially adds up to, “I’ll try real hard and I never stop”. This feels more like filler than an album closer. It’s more cliched and predictable in a “bad 80s pop” way than a “bad Christian rock” way, but that honestly isn’t much better. This is the one track that holds me back from giving AWOL an “A” grade, unfortunately.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Prodigal (Run to You) $1.50
Glory Boys $1
Half of the Better One $1.50
Brand New Hit $1
Irish Blood Up $1.50
Cornucopia of My Soul $0
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: