“What kind of a band name is Skillet?”
A friend of mine asked that question rather derisively when the hard-rocking band’s self-titled album dropped back in 1996. She thought they were destined to be, ahem, just a flash in the pan.
Well, with all due respect to my friend, the joke’s on her. Fast-forward 23 years—an eternity in pop-culture time, and especially in the music world—and Skillet is not only the premier Christian hard rock band today, but one of the most consistently successful rock bands, period.
The Wisconsin-bred act has sold 12 million albums and hit the two-billion stream mark on Spotify. It’s enjoyed 21 chart-topping songs on the Christian singles chart. And husband-and-wife teammates John and Korey Cooper, along with drummer Jen Ledger and guitarist Seth Morrison, continue to pound out ferociously hard-rocking albums that revolve around two ideas: Life is hard. But there is hope.
That gritty-but-optimistic message is front and center once again on Skillet’s 10th studio album, Victorious.
Skillet has tattooed themes of perseverance and determination across nearly every song on the aptly named Victorious. Album opener “Legendary” challenges listeners to seize the day (“One life to live”) with never-say-die confidence (“I never give up, I never give in”) built on a foundation of faith (“Legends made/When faith is strong”) that doesn’t yield to life’s traumas (“Pushing through the pain/ … Whatever it takes”).
“You Ain’t Ready” doubles down on those messages, juxtaposing our “grief/ … pain and misery” against the band’s fierce determination to carry on: “I fight and I survive/ … I’m never giving up.” John Cooper adds, “What doesn’t kill me/Makes me who I am.” And he tells others who might feel like they’re just muddling through, “Hold on to your truth/’Til you break through.” We hear more of the same in “Finish Line.”
The title track offers an anguished, prayer-like plea from someone who feels isolated (“They don’t know who I am”) and alone (“In all this emptiness/Stuck inside this room like a prison sentence”), but who longs for someone to believe in them (“Don’t give up on me”) and recognizes the need for a savior (“I need a savior now/Someone to break me out/Who’s been the place I’ve been”).
Similar ideas also turn up in the song “Save Me,” as well as “Reach” and “Back to Life.” And despite pouring out feelings of fear and doubt, each of those songs also includes lines about clinging to hope even in the darkest times. In “Save Me,” we hear, “Reaching for the light/Reaching from inside.” Meanwhile, “Reach” pleads for a helping hand (“I’m falling deep/Reach for me”), while “Back to Life” wonders, “Can you heal the places I hurt,” then begs, “Bring me back to life.”
“This Is the Kingdom” is one of the most theological songs on the album, with lines that clearly echo the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “The first will be last/And the last will be kings/ … Blessed are the bound and broken/You’re a citizen/And your faith will prove it.” As for the kingdom in question, it is “heaven coming down,” one that’s “gonna light up this whole world” and one that will stand “forever” even as “everything else is gonna fade away.”
“Rise Up” declares, “Love’s gonna be our battle cry/ … Rise up, rise up.” “Never Going Back” renounces spiritual bondage: “I used to be caged/ … I lived like your slave/Those days are over now.” Likewise, “Terrify the Dark” describes the effect of God’s piercing light amid darkness: “Your light will terrify the dark/I call upon the name/That tears the night apart.” That song also includes a subtle allusion to Jesus’ crucifixion: “My doubt will answer to your scars/And fear will have no place/No hold on my heart.”
“Anchor” declares, “You are my anchor,” and it attests to God’s creation of us (“You gave me your breath”) and His sustaining presence (“Come steady me now/ … And tell me to rest”).
Some could potentially hear the phrase “hold on to your truth” on “You Ain’t Ready” as a nod to truth being relative, though I don’t think that’s what the band intends in the overall context of the song or album.
“Save Me” articulates feelings of hopelessness (“Tonight I’m standing on the ledge”) and pain (“Peel back the skin exposed to you/Take pleasure in the pain”) that can sound pretty problematic if heard only in isolation. Two other songs, “Reach” and “Back to Life” are similarly raw in some of their depictions of emotional turmoil. But as I noted above, each of these songs also includes lines that offer a lifeline amid feelings of despair.
Skillet’s growling, relentless brand of hurting-yet-hopeful heavy rock admittedly isn’t for everyone. Some Christian parents might hear snippets of lyrics and wonder if it’s too dark. Others might be put off by the aggressive style.
But for fans looking for a redemptive, spiritually grounded expression of faith in a modern rock package, you’ll be hard put to find a better alternative. For nearly 25 years now, Skillet has boldly sung about the issues so many young people face, while simultaneously declaring a message of hope and healing for those who might be teetering on the edge of giving up.
In a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, John Cooper said, “People are told by celebrities and movies and songs that every day is going to be the best day of my life, and social media has created this thing where we’re constantly seeing everyone’s perfect life. But suicide rates have gone up, and rates of depression. Victorious has a lot of songs that are trying to say that life is not going to be grand, it’s going to be hard, and sometimes it’s really ugly. But there is hope.”
Life is going to be hard. But there is hope. And that hope, the band has always insisted, is found in God and His constant, redemptive love of us.
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.