Judah & the Lion is a trio of three Nashville-based guys who make music without a fixed genre. There’s lead singer Judah Akers, banjo player Nate Zuercher and mandolin player Brian Macdonald.
What began in 2011 as an unlikely friendship at Belmont University turned into, as the Chicago Tribune puts it, a “unified love of Mumford & Sons” and, later, a band. But it didn’t stop there.
Combining the guys’ love of folk, pop and rock, this Christian trio put out its first EP in 2013; its first full album in 2014; and now, its sophomore effort: Pep Talks.
This 17-song collection features a musical collaboration with grammy award winner Kacey Musgraves and combines folk, pop, rock and EDM. It’s like listening to The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, NEEDTOBREATHE, Mat Kearny and Imagine Dragons all at the same time.
That might sound overwhelming, but it isn’t. These gritty-but-inspiring songs tackle difficult topics such as divorce, addiction and anxiety. Throughout, however, the band also breathes life into those tough topics with their honesty, transparency and hope.
Judah Akers gets candid about the difficulties of divorce and addiction. He tells us it’s OK to ask for help when we’re struggling in songs such as “i’m ok.,” “Why Did You Run?” “Queen Songs/human.” and “pictures.” In the first of those, he tries to talk himself into feeling better about his tough situation (“It’s been a rough last couple months/My aunt’s gone and my parents divorced/But I’m OK”), but he also realizes he’s really not OK and that transparency is best (“So my first step to recovery, a couple deep breaths/And then hear me speak/I’m not OK”). In the last of those songs, he reflects on how divorce has impacted his family, (“So many good memories/And some fatal mistakes/And I know that you love me still/But we’re not the same”).
In “Quarter-Life Crisis,” Akers confesses he can’t handle life’s tragedies alone: “I need my family to come and help me fight this,” he sings. “I can’t do this all alone.” He wonders about his future and purpose in “Over My Head.” And the singer promises to work through marital issues with his wife in “Dance With Ya.”
But working through familial conflict is not where this story ends. On “Joyboy,” “Family/Best Is Yet to Come,” “Alright (frick it!)” and “7000x,” hope and faith are louder than tragedy and despair. “Everybody’s goin’ through somthin’/…No matter what/Imma choose JOYBOY.” And in the second: “Here’s your choice stay low or get up and fight/Look at us getting up up up.”
In “Queen Songs/human.,” Akers looks back on the good times with his mom: “But I remember queen songs/In the passenger seat/You were singing along/And smiling at me.” And in “Don’t Mess With My Mama,” he defends the mother he loves.
“Passion Fashion” is about separating yourself from an unhealthy need to please and mimic others. Akers declares who he is, saying “I like good things, focused on the positive/I’m emotional, I’m a stubborn optimist.” Meanwhile, “GoofBallerz” is about learning to have fun and not always being so serious.
“17” and “sportz” are fun, silly songs that reminisce on what it was like to be a teenager. In “sportz” Judah remembers trying to impress the woman who would later become his wife: “I’m sittin’ here listenin’ to punk rock/Lindsey’s there cheering in the stands/I hope tonight that I’ll be her man.”
The content on this album might be better labeled mature and real. Divorce is real. Addiction is real. Heartbreak is real. Anxiety is real. And vocalist Judah Akers opens up about the tragedy of his parents’ divorce, his mom’s drinking problems and the heartbreak that inevitably follows.
References to these things generally aren’t negative, per se. But the frequency with which these tough problems are depicted lends the album a melancholy vibe at times, especially in a few problematic references to seeking comfort in a drink in songs such as “Queen Songs/human.,” “i’m ok” and “Over My Head.”
In an interview on The Bobby Bones Show, frontman Judah Akers opened up about how his parents’ divorce, as well as his mom’s struggle with alcohol, inspired the band’s latest work. He said that while things with the band were going well, “I felt like I was dying inside because my family back home was falling apart essentially.”
That honest transparency about heart-wrenching familial struggles is reflected throughout the entire album.
There were some moments I cried listening. It’s just so… real. Other moments, I was filled with hope. And let’s be honest: Addressing issues such as divorce, addiction and anxiety is never easy. But what Judah and the Lion wants to communicate is that there is still hope to be found, even in hard places.
As for the cover art, a fourth finger is ironically stuck up, representing the band’s 2019 motto: “frick it.” While the word itself is obviously being used as a stand in for a harsher profanity, the band also tweeted an explanation, saying that “frick it” is “our way of saying no matter what you’re going through you have a reason to move forward. It’s not saying ‘we don’t go through hard things’. It’s saying the opposite. We all go through hard things but we ALL have a reason to move forward.”
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).