The band members of NEEDTOBREATHE may indeed have trouble breathing in the rare air they currently occupy. Their new album recently debuted at No. 1 on the Rock Albums chart, No. 1 on the Christian chart, and No. 3 on the overall Billboard 200 chart.
Numbers don't always tell the tale of an album's value, of course. But in this case, they seem to match the merit of the effort. Rivers In The Wasteland is a terrific example of authentic art and faith expression. The band displays a sophisticated musical palette that effortlessly combines rock and roots genres into original grooves and pithy poetry. It's a diverse sound with a diverse audience—not exactly what you'd expect from a group of guys raised in the small town of Possum Kingdom, S.C.
Rivers In The Wasteland explores tensions and resolutions of various kinds and the journey begins, appropriately enough, in the "Wasteland." A sparse, brooding guitar matches lead singer Bear Rinehart's melancholy meditation: "I'm wasting my way through days/losing youth along the way." The harsh environs of the wilderness also strip the powerful delusion of self-importance: "There was a greatness I thought for a while/But somehow it changed/some kind of blindness I used to protect me/from all of my stains." Ostracized by his conscience and subjected to painful isolation from others, Rinehart comforts himself with the refrain, "If God is on my side, who can be against me?" New instruments flood and refresh the soundscape as this truth takes hold and becomes a "crack in the door filled with light."
Foot-stomping and hand-clapping kick off the jangly-driving blues tune "Feet Don't Fail Me Now." Rinehart's fleet-footed escape from relentless pursuers is reminiscent of King David: "I got this target/right here on my back/They're aiming where I was/Not where I'm at." Listeners race along with the character as the music, propelled by strong electric guitar riffs, keeps them moving and shuffling like a good old blues piece should.
Several of the songs on Rivers In The Wasteland are not explicitly religious but explore tensions of another kind—whether romantic, in "Oh Carolina," or philosophical, such as in "Difference Maker," which wrestles with conundrums and seeming paradoxes. None of which, however, means the band is shy about ordinary expressions of faith. In "Multiplied," a sparkling guitar marvelously complements the comparison of God's love to "radiant diamonds bursting inside."
That vertical love spills over into the horizontal in "Brother," an anthem-style piece insisting we are indeed our brother's keeper. Stirring vocals, soulful piano, and a rock-solid groove knock the chorus to inspiring heights: "Brother let me be your shelter/Never leave you all alone/I can be the one to call/when you're low."
Laid-back banjo picking and easy-strumming guitar lend the feel of an intimate conversation to "More Heart, Less Attack." It's an appropriate tone for a tune meant to be a gentle reproof between friends. The song reminds us to balance conviction with grace so we can "be the light in the cracks/be the one that's mending the camel's back/slow to anger and quick to laugh/be more heart and less attack." It's a reminder worth heeding in these difficult days.