By: Michael Simmelink
With more anticipation than ever before, NEEDTOBREATHE has released “Rivers in the Wasteland,” their fifth studio album. The guys have spent the better part of the last three years touring almost nonstop, making appearances at Bonnaroo and opening for Taylor Swift on her North American tour. 2011’s “The Reckoning” put NEEDTORBEATHE on the radar as a unique mix of gospel, bluegrass, country, and rock-n-roll that mainstream radio, Christian or secular, hadn’t given ear to.
Such a fast moving ascension to nationwide fame did not come without a price for the South Carolina natives. Through interviews with Billboard and RELEVANT magazine, the band revealed that the growth in popularity became overwhelming. Long beloved for their down-to-earth, home-grown material, the group had lost sight of their roots. Therefore, “Rivers in the Wasteland” is an album about removal of stuff that had gotten in the way. The record as whole is just so much less than “The Reckoning.” The sound isn’t as big. The songs have less instrumentation. Eleven tracks are the smallest number put on an album since 2006’s opening release, “Daylight.”
Yet it might be the tightest album NEEDTOBREATHE has put together. All four of their other records had themes or motifs, but there wasn’t necessarily a flow or reason for why songs we put in a certain order. “Rivers” is best heard with the shuffle button off. It is a record that is reflective on what the band has gone through in the past year and a half, according to lead singer Bear Rinehart in the album’s commentary. One needs to start with the opening and track “Wasteland” to understand that band was in a place of darkness and aridness. There are hints of the arena-rock feel of “The Reckoning” within the track, but it is only meant to set the stage of what is to come.
The album is split almost in half with what could be considered the wasteland portion versus the river portion. “State I’m In” and “Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now” are solid southern rock jams that keep the wasteland from feeling depressing, but Rinehart’s lyrics foreshadow something better on the way. “Oh, Carolina” is an obvious ode to home that features some of the best harmonies on the album. It’s seems like a song you’d strum on the family six-string on a porch on a summer night. I don’t know if that’s something anybody actually does, but the song evokes a hope within that it happens somewhere.
Transition finds the record in the middle with “Difference Maker” and “Rise Again.” The former very well might go down as everyone’s favorite off the album. The lyrical make-up of the song makes it extremely personal for the listener. You may not be able to relate with many of the hardships of touring in a band, but you can definitely find a connection with the struggle to realize your purpose and value in the world. The instrumentation is quite repetitive and simple, but by the last verse, it becomes hard to plainly sing along with lyrics like, “We are all transgressors, we’re all sinners, we’re all astronauts / So if you’re beating death then raise your hand, but shut up if you’re not.” Those words don’t get sung except through gritted teeth.
As the river section begins to emerge, listeners find “The Heart.” It’s currently the most prominent single from the record. Classic NEEDTOBREATHE. A track full of swinging southern rock catalyzed by catchy chorus and Bear’s gritty vocals somehow reaching a full octave higher than it should. Instrumentally, it’s one of the more complex tracks on the album.
Near the end, a listener may be tempted to pass lightly over “Brother.” I have a reoccurring nightmare this song will be tragically overlooked on the album, one of the many similarities it shares with “Preacher” off OneRepublic’s 2013 release, “Natives.” Bear and Bo Rinehart very rarely make it obvious in their music that they are, in fact, brothers, but it doesn’t get more blatant than this. The usual route to take on songs like this is a simple guitar as the siblings’ duet. Thankfully, the Rinehart boys put a little more thought into it. A choir-backed chorus and piano-centered beat makes the song more like an Elton John classic than you’d ever guess. I give it the nod as my personal favorite on the album.
On the whole, NEEDTOBREATHE went simpler in almost every way on this– instrumentally, in quantity, theologically. But it’s what we needed from them. For them to make something bigger and continue expanding like “The Outsiders” and “The Reckoning” would have taken away what was likeable about them in the first place. This release is well-worth the money and time for fans who have been with NEEDTOBREATHE for a while, and could potentially garner new ones along the way.