The South Carolina band NEEDTOBREATHE is frequently categorized as a Christian rock group. And that’s an accurate description. But on the quartet’s sixth effort, H A R D L O V E, faith messages are more subtle than they were on 2014’s plaintive Rivers in the Wasteland. (You won’t actually find the word God in the lyrics on these 12 tracks.)
And while there’s plenty of guitar to be heard throughout, other decidedly not-rock musical influences are all over this album. Several songs include soaring gospel choirs that reinforce H A R D L O V E’s paradoxical emphasis on celebration amid struggle, determination amid brokenness.
All of that makes for an album that probably still qualifies for the moniker “Christian rock,” but perhaps not in the ways we normally toss that phrase around.
“TESTIFY” (the band’s penchant for capitalizing everything extends to its songs here) is arguably the most plainly spiritual song on the album. It seems to be an invitation from God’s perspective (though He’s never named) to enjoy the kind of abundant life only He can provide when we relinquish control. We hear, “Come to the fountain and/You can be satisfied/There is a peace, there is a love/You can get lost inside/ … Oh, I will give myself to you/As soon as you start to let go.” Near the end of the song, we also hear this echo of Psalm 42:7: “Wave after wave/As deep calls to deep/Oh, I’ll reveal my mystery/As soon as you start to let go.”
The title track, “HARD LOVE,” deals with the biblical theme of dying to our own selfish desires. It’s never an easy process, frontman Bear Rinehart tells us: “Trading punches with the heart of darkness/ … A part of you has gotta die today/ … You’ve got to burn your old self away.” The song rightly says that the courage necessary to purge our selfishness doesn’t develop overnight. (“But there’s a reason that the road is long/It take some time to make your courage strong”). The song also hints at finding strength in love (“They will see my strength in this love I found”).
“WHEN I SING” expresses a longing for reunion (“I’m tired of being so far away from you/You know I need you here, not in my dreams”). “HAPPINESS” finds a man begging for a second chance (“So I’m asking you to show me some forgiveness”) after admitting he’s put his career above love (“Chasing that life, moving on, ’cause I had to prove/There ain’t no life worth doing what I did to you”). “LET’S STAY HOME TONIGHT” is a lovely (if at times sensual) song about a couple spending an evening home reconnecting: “Baby, let’s stay home tonight/We can put a couple records on/We can build a fire/Maybe we can dance till dawn.” “CLEAR” is another tender love song that finds a man telling his beloved, “You’re the true north pointing me back home/You are the constant, my constellation.” Elsewhere, the song hints at resolving wounds from the past (“I just want to hear you whispering you still trust/You’re the only thing that I have ever been sure of/ … I promise I won’t let you down”).
“BE HERE LONG” explores a grieving man’s aching heart in the wake of someone’s death. “I gave you the best of me/Loved you more than anything/ … Oh, I’m swimming in the grief/ … ‘Cause I don’t wanna let you go right now.” By song’s end, there’s a growing sense of gratitude and a recognition of the hope of heaven (“Oh, your moments were a charity/They gave me more than I could lose/Oh, I know you found the promised land/But I’m still here, and I’m missing you”). The song concludes with what sounds like a prayer as Rinehart vows, “When the day comes/And the fire is out/I wanna know that/I gave you all, I gave you all I had.”
“MONEY & FAME” is a cautionary tale about how success can “bring a man to shame” if he doesn’t resist the temptations that come with those things. “DON’T BRING THAT TROUBLE” warns someone against being a troublemaker.
“NO EXCUSES,” a surprisingly grim song about relational conflict, includes this line: “Girl, I’ve been your lover since high school.” Rinehart later tells this woman, “If you’re gonna tighten this rope around my neck/Girl, you better know I’m gonna fight it.” “WHEN I SING” includes these mildly suggestive lyrics: “Your skin feels just like a rose petal/The remedy that gets me through.” “LET’S STAY HOME TONIGHT” includes a description of what might happen when a couple (presumably married) decides to spend an evening at home: “Don’t even have to put clothes on/I can keep you warm inside/Baby, let’s stay home tonight.”
“GREAT NIGHT” describes an evening of dancing and also hints at embracing a rebellious attitude: “Oh, all the rules need breaking/And I need time for wasting/Before I lose my mind/Oh, tonight we’ll all be outlaws/ … Tonight we’ll feel alive/I got this fever, fever, burning inside/I got this fever, fever, getting me high.” Meanwhile, “MONEY & FAME” confesses that success had made a man so paranoid that he says, “I was sleeping with a loaded gun.”
It’s difficult to clearly discern when a band’s lyrics are autobiographical and when they’re just a dramatic story. But listening to H A R D L O V E, it seems pretty obvious that the guys in NEEDTOBREATHE have been through some stuff with those they love. There have been conflicts, relational ruptures that have torn trust. But now, for the most part, there’s a desire for reconciliation, for renewal, for a second chance.
A few songs seem to reference God. But more often here, the band’s wading into mundane, earth-bound themes. Some of those moments are surprisingly earthy indeed, enough to merit a mild warning for parents wondering if this group’s latest effort is appropriate for younger fans.
For the most part though, the band testifies that while love can be hard, it’s also worth it to work through the difficult times that inevitably come. With God’s redemptive help, we can confess our failures, forgive each other, and press on together to a better destination ahead.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.