With the possible exceptions of super-producers Dr. Luke and Max Martin, perhaps no one in the last decade has played a more influential role in shaping popular music than OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder. His sonic fingerprints are simply everywhere, with a litany of writing and production credits that stretches on and on. From Adele to Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez to Beyoncé, Daughtry to Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood to Chris Cornell, Backstreet Boys to Big Time Rush, Jordin Sparks to Ludacris, Natasha Bedingfield to Ashley Tisdale, Ryan Tedder’s creative output embodies the word prolific.
Which perhaps helps to explain why his own band’s third effort, Native, sounds like a tour de force amalgamation of every major trend in pop music today … and some from yesteryear.
At times, acoustic beats and cavernous gang vocals recall of-the-moment nu-folk outfits Mumford & Sons and the The Lumineers. Other times, surging synths bring to mind electronic dance music heavyweights Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia. Still other songs nod at indie acts du jour .fun, Imagine Dragons, Florence + the Machine. Coldplay and Muse-esque melodies creep in occasionally as well. Still other tracks tip the hat to rock icons such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, Prince, Paul Simon, ELO, U2 and The Beatles. If that weren’t enough, Tedder frosts several tunes with a thick layer of gospel choir ebullience. Truly, about the only thing missing here is the gurgling of the kitchen sink.
All that means Native is an ambitious, impressive album. Musically. Lyrically it’s a bit more typical. A little less inventive. Here OneRepublic rarely strays too far from the pop genre’s go-to thematic muse: love won and love lost … though some meaningful moments of inspiration do turn up here and there.
A struggling soul on “Feel Again” says a new relationship is reviving his numbed and deadened heart. “What You Wanted” proffers faithfulness and commitment (“I’ll find the places where you hide/I’ll be the dawn on your worst night/ … I’ll light your fire till my last day”). “Can’t Stop” honestly mourns the death of a romantic relationship (“I don’t want to live without you/ … But I can’t stop/Thinking about, thinking about us”). “Au Revoir” suggests that a struggling couple stop trying to analyze what’s broken and simply live in the moment with each other (“We can take apart this life we’re building/And pack it up inside a box/All that really matters is we’re doing it right now”). “Something I Need” celebrates the fact that even if a couple loses everything, they still have each other (“Honey, you don’t need to be afraid/If we got nothing, we got us”).
” I Lived” salutes a life lived with purposeful passion: “Hope that you spend your days/But they all add up/And when that sun goes down/Hope you raise your cup/I wish that I could witness/All your joy/And all your pain/But until my moment comes/I’ll say, I, I did it all/ … I owned every second this world could give/I saw so many places/And things that I did/Yeah, with every broken bone/I swear I lived.” “Preacher” pays tender homage to the faith of a grandfather who was also a poor-but-rich preacher: “When I was a kid/My grandfather was a preacher/He’d talk about God/Yeah, he was something like a teacher/ … He was a million miles from a million dollars/But you could never spend his wealth.” Grandpa also told his young grandson, “Son, you got an angel/To chase the devil at night.”
” Counting Stars” tells us that dreaming big dreams and working toward them passionately and prayerfully is more important than monetary success: “Lately, I’ve been losing sleep/Dreaming about the things that we could be/But, baby, I been, I been prayin’ hard/Said no more counting dollars/We’ll be counting stars.” But …
… murky lyrics elsewhere on that song perhaps imply taking deceptive, destructive paths toward achieving those dreams. “I feel something so right,” Tedder tells us, “at doing the wrong thing/ … I could lie, could lie, could lie/Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.” A similarly ominous, ambiguous line on “Feel Again” involves a gun: “I’ve been everywhere and back trying to replace/Everything that broke, till my feet went numb/Praying like a fool just shy of a gun.” And “What You Wanted” pushes romantic declarations of love into hyperbolically violent territory: “Yeah, I would kill for you, that’s right/If that’s what you wanted.” One could also read these lyrics not as sweet, but as dysfunctionally codependent: “I’ll put your poison in my veins/They say the best love is insane, yeah.”
“Something I Need” says, “Woke me up right after 2:00/Stayed awake and stared at you/So I wouldn’t lose my mind.” That song also includes a line about getting drunk to cope with life’s stresses: “Last night I drank too much/Call it our temporary crutch.” One use of “d‑‑n” pops up too, the album’s sole profanity. Lyrics on “Light It Up” could be heard as mildly suggestive: “I just want to see/All the sparks you’re trying to hide/Let’s take a trip to wonderland/We can just tune this fire tonight.” The song also compares love to “your favorite drug.”
Native finds Ryan Tedder and his bandmates bringing all of their considerable musical prowess to bear in the service of these massive, melodic, state-of-the-art pop songs. Occasionally, they drift into some disappointing, brow-furrowing territory, whether it’s a lone profanity, an allusion to drinking too much, an opaque reference to violence or some suggestions of sensuality. And these are maddening moments, because elsewhere—and more often than not—OneRepublic marches with confidence through life’s inevitable conflicts and conundrums.
Life’s not easy, we’re told. But it’s worth living to the full, even when we’re not sure we can go on. Or how long we have. And the greatest meaning and purpose in our journeys come not from materialistic success, but from rich relationships with those we love. Tedder put it like this in an MTV interview: “Even though [“If I Lose Myself”] sounds like this euphoric, ‘let’s go crazy tonight’ song, it’s a bit morbid; it’s about going down in an airplane. Waking up on an airplane and finding out you’re going down, having that moment of sheer panic, looking out the window, seeing your life pass before you, [but] looking over to your right and seeing the person you love sitting next to you, and realizing ‘It could be worse … the next 90 seconds are going to be pretty thrilling, and this person is with me, so I’m OK.'”
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.