Rivers in the Wasteland
Folk rock has enjoyed an energetic resurgence in the early 2010s, with the likes of Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers leading the clappin', stompin', banjo- and mandolin-strummin' charge. It would be easy to say that NEEDTOBREATHE's fifth effort, the largely acoustic Rivers in the Wasteland, is just another example of a band capitalizing on that sound du jour. But this alternative Christian rock act from Seneca, S.C., brings more to the musical table than just folksy strummings and stompings.
Indeed, Rivers in the Wasteland undulates to its own musical muse. Frontman Bear Rinehart possesses a potent, plaintive pair of vocal cords, his voice cut through with rawness. And lyrical themes revolve around desperation followed by redemption, feeling lost and being found.
On "Wasteland," Rinehart narrates a tale of disorientation as he trades visions of grandiosity for a clearer view of his own sins and of God's graciousness: "Yeah, I'm wastin' my way through days/ … There was a greatness I felt for a while/But somehow it changed/Some kind of blindness I used to protect me/From all my stains." Those reflections contrast with what follows: "Oh, if God is on my side/Who could be against me?/ … There is a crack in the door filled with light/And it's all that I need/To get by/ … And it's all that I need to shine."
"State I'm In" spends quite a bit of time digging into life's struggles, but also recognizes that something needs to change. "Difference Maker" compares an arrogant religious person with someone who's aware that all of us are equally broken sinners. Of the arrogant man, Bear sings, "He climbs up the hill on the rock on which he stands/He looks back at the crowd/He looks down at his hands and says/I am a difference maker/Oh, I am a difference maker/Oh, I am the only one who speaks to Him/And I am the friendliest of friends of God." Of his humble counterpart, "I am on the fence about nearly everything I've seen/ … 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."
Determination marks "Feet, Don't Fail Me Now," with lyrics like "I can't slow down/I can't get stuck/I'd rather die than have to hang it up." Similarly, "Rise Again" finds someone who's struggling with life's trials saying, "Oh, I know I'm on the rise again/Singing, 'Farewell, king of the broken'/So long my friend." Persistence also infuses "The Heart": "Long live the heart/Long live the soul/That knows what it wants/No matter how far/How heavy this load/It never lets go." Oblique lines on "Where the Money Is" hint at trading worldly burdens for freedom in baptism: "Bury your ropes and let the wise man's daughter/Carry us down to where the walls don't speak/Bury my worries in the deep black water/Bury them down and take the weight off me."
Rivers in the Wasteland's final three songs are more River and less Wasteland than what's come before. "Multiplied" unabashedly praises God, declaring, "Your love is like radiant diamonds/Bursting inside us we cannot contain/Your love will surely come find us/Like blazing wildfires singing Your Name/God of mercy, sweet love of mine/I have surrendered to Your design/May this offering stretch across the sky/These hallelujahs be multiplied." Meanwhile, "Brother" promises to be exactly that to a struggling friend. And, finally, album closer "More Heart, Less Attack" pleads for gentleness: "Slow to anger, quick to laugh/Be more heart and less attack."
There's no sexual context given, but obscure lines on "Feet, Don't Fail Me Now" could be heard as suggestive: "I felt this moonlight/Reach down and touch me/I need another night/Before you leave." The same could be said for "Oh, Carolina" when a man tells a woman, "When I get back home to you/We're gonna start a fire."
NEEDTOBREATHE's 2011 album, The Reckoning, nearly undid the band. Critical acclaim, strong album sales and a big tour nearly tore everything apart. "There are opportunities that come along as a band gets bigger, and we certainly were faced with some—they just don't feel right," Bear Rinehart recently told Relevant magazine. "And the first time you make a decision that doesn't feel right, it feels horrible. It caused an incredible amount of turmoil and soul searching. That's what the wasteland is."
Rinehart also noted how Old Testament imagery played an important part in shaping Rivers in the Wasteland. "We felt like we had a little bit of hope left but not a whole lot. Making this record … felt like something was coming out of nothing. We talk about the verse Isaiah 43:19 ('See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland'). God is going to do something. He's going to place a river in the wasteland, and that's what this record really was about for us."
NEEDTOBREATHE has clearly faced its share of arid days. But by the end of Rivers in the Wasteland, it seems equally clear that God has brought the members of this band through their personal desert to a place of satisfying provision. "Our faith has become much more a part of our decision making now," Rinehart told Relevant. "Success has clouded that at times, but for us, it has to be at the top now. Our faith is the most important thing in our lives, and it's definitely the most important thing in our career."