Pinning neat labels on the Florida-based band Anberlin has never been an easy proposition. The group got its start on the Christian imprint Tooth & Nail Records, then migrated to a new mainstream label in 2007, Universal Republic. Band members have talked freely about their allegiance to Christ, yet have at times exhibited some hesitation and frustration when pigeonholed as a Christian band. Historically, the lyrical content of Anberlin's albums has undulated between upbeat and optimistic and broodingly melancholy. Finally, the band's sound itself has covered quite a lot of territory, inviting genre descriptors such as alternative, post-hardcore, metal, emo and electronica.
Anberlin's sixth album, Vital, resolves none of these paradoxical tensions, but rather seems almost to glory in them. Massive wall-of-guitar sounds invite comparisons to Tool or Chevelle one moment, while synth-saturated ambience recalls Muse, The Killers or even Depeche Mode the next. Likewise, the band's lyrics often outline opaque stories that, while trending in a positive direction, nevertheless do far more than merely recognize life's inevitable messiness and pain.
"Type Three" includes the album's clearest reference to the band's faith: "I look to heaven to save me/And you call me naive/Rather be a hopeless leper/Than cursed with disbelief."
"Orpheum" begs the question of whether a man's strong physical attraction to a woman has crossed a line into being compulsive and unhealthy ("It's in the way you move/Am I losing my soul?"). "Self-Starter" finds a numbed man struggling to find genuine meaning in his life and relationships. "I still can't feel nothing," frontman Stephen Christian sings, "Just want to hold something/Tell me again what's real/Tell me again what to feel/ … Just want to hold something." Later, he seems to admit that sex alone cannot provide a shortcut to lasting intimacy or satisfaction: "Where are we that we digress?/Long for love, but then undress/Our hands, no bounds, our hearts detached/We grasp for all that will not last."
There's a similar quest for meaning on "Little Tyrants," as Christian asks, "Am I alive?/Somebody tell me/Am I alive?" The balance of the song suggests that when we live in self-centered and narcissistic ways, it cuts us off from others ("You are the king of an island of one/A tyrant soon to come undone"). Similarly, on "Other Side" a man begs to be known, loved and accepted. "Love me! Love me!/Why don't you know me? Know me?/Hold me! Hold me!/I am just me, trust me." The song also perhaps hints at seeking God when we hear, "I reach my hands to the sky/ … Throw your arms in the air/Hands toward the sky, and you're here." "Modern Age" asks rhetorically, "Don't we all want to be loved?/Don't we all want to write our own song?" "Intentions" critiques people consumed and driven by self-centered ambitions ("My ambition is all that I have/ … I want a love that I don't deserve/I want the gold that I didn't earn/I want a fire that will never burn").
"Someone Anyone" suggests that war (perhaps between nations, perhaps between individuals) takes a terrible toll on its participants ("Anyone, anyone, anyone can start a war/No one can walk away, truly alive/Someone, someone tell me what we're fighting for/ … I don't see a reason"). The poignant and tender "Innocent" seems to tell the story of a father reckoning with the loss of an infant: "Laying you down one last time/On machines that never give/A touch woke you gently/I'll never know if you saw me/Did your eyes ever meet mine?/ … Do your lips feel the kiss?/Do your hands feel this touch?/I miss you here/I miss you so much/We're all born the innocent."
"God, Drugs & Sex" lumps all three of those titular things into the same messy pile when a woman complains, "'Cause God, drugs and sex don't mean a thing to you now, do they, baby?" "Modern Age" evokes the image of two people sleeping together to illustrate someone's fear of intimacy ("Fall asleep alone/Safer than the off chance/Of getting your heart attacked one more time"). And it's possible to interpret the opening line of "Type Three" as a rationalization for sin: "I have my reasons for the vices I embrace/A world of treasons, I'm their only escape." "Desires" describes a grim story of an embittered man lamenting a betrayal he's experienced ("The knife that's resting in my back is proof enough for me/That you're a one-sided catastrophe").
As much as we might want it to be sometimes, life is not simple. It's full of complexities and swirling conflicts and emotions and unanswered questions. Listening to Vital, it seems as if the guys in Anberlin are pretty in touch with that reality. Fans won't find easy answers to hard questions on this album. They will find—at least on the majority of these tracks—recognition and affirmation that life is worth living well. But they'll have to wade through some brokenness and disappointment and even a few sinful choices along the way.