Wow, another Third Day album already? It seemed like I had to wait forever in between Come Together and the band's "rock album" comeback, Wire. Yeah, I know, there was that Offerings II thing in between, but the first Offerings was so-so enough that I didn't really count a mish-mash sequel as another true album from the guys. They originally made their mark in Christian music doing a blend of Southern and modern rock styles, and while they had proven to be even more popular as a worship band, it kind of happened at the expense of a lot of their older fans. Wire, as a bad to get those fans back, failed - or at least, it failed to win me over. So I wasn't exactly pining for another album, and this year's Wherever You Are more or less showed up before I even knew it was coming.
There were reasons for the hurried release, I guess. Hurricane Katrina was probably the most devastating thing to hit the U.S. since 9/11, and since of course part of the Christian message is comfort and encouragement, it's not a bad thing at all that Third Day was able to respond quickly with their song "Cry Out to Jesus", which was unofficially dedicated to the victims of that and the subsequent hurricanes slamming the Southeastern part of our nation. I figured it was a one-off charity-type single, and the band would still tour and take their time with their next album, as normal. Apparently the theme of comforting people in the midst of sorrow became an overarching theme as they worked on new songs, though, and that made their latest album come quite naturally. I can't fault them for putting out new songs when the songs naturally became ready - I've heard many a rushed album made due to label pressures in my day, and this doesn't sound like one of 'em.
The problem with Wherever You Are is that it doesn't sound like classic Third Day, either. Sure, all of the classic elements are there. Mac Powell's charmingly Southern vocals come through loud and clear. The band plays with genuine spirit on a number of the songs, occasionally making a bigger, more compelling sound even though this album is conspicuously more "adult contemporary" than Wire. And while I can't ever say that these guys have ever been elaborately talented songwriters (they've written a few bona fide classics, but even their best songs are simplistic when you really look at 'em), they're able to effectively communicate some sort of lasting feeling on many of these tracks. At its best, Wherever You Are has good intentions, and it works to please its listeners on a very simple level.
So what's the problem? It doesn't work on levels deeper than that. I can take simple encouragement when it's backed by genuinely spirited music, but when the band mellows out and the music isn't as interesting, the lyrics come across as clichéd and flimsy. And as much as I enjoy the Third Day sound, there are times when I begin to think that the band is starting to run on auto-pilot for at least half of every new album. You can tell which songs were designed to be the lasting classics that show up in their setlists for years to come, and which ones were designed to be relegated to the forgettable back half of an album (a problem that the band has had on the past few albums - they haven't put out an end-to-end solid album since Time). I might be suffering a bit from the overexposure of Mac Powell, too. As much as I like the voice, I've gotten a bit used to him showing up to add "star power" to other artists' albums or the ubiquitous City on a Hill-in-disguise compilations that the bands' label keeps putting out. Sometimes it feels like they're riding on reconcilability, rather than artistic talent, to make their songs fly. Lest we forget, there's a "rest of the band" here, and it's only when guitarists Brad Avery and Mark Lee, bassist Tai Anderson, and drummer David Carr try to make their presence a little more obvious that Third Day manages to truly compel me. That results in a real hit-and-miss effort, maybe a little stronger than Wire overall, but definitely not something you could favorably compare to their late 90's output.
Long story short: I'm getting used to disappointment.
You've got your disappointments and sorrows
You ought to share the weight of that load with me...
Hey, that's a promising start! The clacking of drumsticks leads to a very strong rhythm section, with a neat little ascending guitar riff to draw us into the song. Establishing the album's theme nicely, Mac Powell's deep voice comes in admitting that we Christians have struggles, and that we ought to be vulnerable enough to share our burdens with one another, to help lighten the load. A simple, but effective claim, which resounds with emotion in the simple chorus, "There's a light at the end of this tunnel for you". That chorus actually seems to take away a bit of the song's energy at first, but the intensity seems to build as the band crashes and bangs through it. Mark Lee gets to throw in a neat little fingerpicked electric guitar solo in the middle eight - such solos are becoming a dying breed these days in favor of more simplistic but loud power chordage.
I tremble with this heavy weight
And I'm buried underneath my grief
I'll run to You and not grow faint
And I'll lay my burdens at Your feet...
Another reviewer pointed out the similarity between this song's intro and U2's famous song "One", and I'll admit, it's uncanny, though I don't think it was intentional. Brad Avery takes his turn at songwriting with this one, establishing a nice groove over which the bit about "soaring on the wings of eagles" from Isaiah 40 is paraphrased. It sounds promising enough at the outset, but the song never really seems to develop much In the way of energy, due to its inability to break away from the too-easy paraphrasing. Another guitar solo pops out in the bridge, though it doesn't demand the attention as much as the last one, and it doesn't create enough of a break between repetitive chorus. The half-hearted rocker eventually gives way to a wimpy fade out... does anyone remember the days of songs like "How's Your Head" when they'd find interesting ways to avoid that? Yeah, apparently traditional Nashville recording methods won out in the end.
Cry Out to Jesus
For the ones who can't break the addictions and chains
You try to give up, but you come back again
Just remember that you're not alone in your shame and your suffering...
Here it is, the big radio ballad that you may have been unfortunate enough to hear with snippets from news broadcasts overlaid onto it, making much of the actual song difficult to decipher and enjoy. I guess I can appreciate the intent of whoever mixed that "extended radio version" together, since much of the song does speak rather poignantly to victims of tragic loss, but I think there's a beauty to this simple, swaying ballad that goes beyond that. I usually complain when songs aren't specific to the events that inspired them, but in this case, I actually like that Third Day is more broad (and that the original album version isn't bogged down with sound clips!), also offering encouragement to those whose anguish results from their own sin, not from some external disaster. The song may be more AC-oriented than rock-oriented with its simple piano intro and its "weepy strings", but I think it gets its job done adequately enough, encouraging all who are suffering to cry out in prayer and just be honest about what they're feeling. It may be cliché, but the music conveys enough genuine feeling to make up for that.
I Can Feel It
Sometimes it falls like rain upon this thirsty land
Sometimes You gently stir the hart of every man...
Far and away the album's strongest rocker, this one starts off with a time-delayed guitar riff, which is soon joined by a seemingly erratic drum pattern and a light bass rhythm - an intentionally spacious verse to establish the rhythm before one big wallop of a chorus comes rushing in. David Carr just goes nuts on this song, providing a really freakin' loud rat-a-tat sort of rhythm that rings with more passion than anything they've done since... well, since a long time ago. The impact hits like an oncoming train, and it's an appropriate mood since the song talks about being overtaken with God's presence. It's "charismatic" in the good sense of the word. Brad Avery gets some neat little guitar licks in, and the noise level seems to build until the song comes crashing to a sudden close.
Keep on Shinin'
Despite all your tendencies, God sees it differently
Your struggle's a time to grow
And you, you're a miracle, anything but typical
It's time for the whole wide world to know...
Remaining upbeat, but taking a more relaxed approach, the two guitarists opt to glide along rather than slamming us with pure volume this time around. As Third Day's poppier songs go, this one sure beats "I Believe", so I won't complain if it comes across as a bit slight. The lyrics once again focus on encouraging a person, someone who is afraid of being seen by the world as a little different. The happy mood is conveyed well with the group vocal during the chorus, and the shaking of tambourine in the background. Nothing spectacular, but it's more listenable and interesting than most of the stuff later in the record.
I will remember everything, Lord, that You've done for me
I won't take for granted the sacrifice that set me free...
With the exception of Wire, every Third Day album has had its centerpiece, its attention-grabbing, swelling worship anthem. This is Wherever You Are's attempt at such an instant classic, and when Mac's voice starts in immediately with a chorus of "This is the body, this is the blood", that alone practically clinches it as a sure-fire favorite for future church services. This isn't a bad thing, since the band lays down a slow but strong 3/4 rhythm, and the guitars radiate a certain warmth throughout the song that lifts the simple melody above what might otherwise be a routine exercise. Not a lot here in the way of lyrics - it's a simple song of prayer and unity, but once again the band gets away with being simplistic due to the passion with which the song has played. The way the verse builds before being released back into the chorus is especially compelling, even if that's a trick that's been used many times before. Funny how Third Day can do absolutely nothing new and still come up with such strong songs. If the whole album were like its first half, I'd actually be a lot fonder of it than I am.
Carry My Cross
I'm praying in the garden, and I'm looking for a miracle
I find the journey hard, but it's the reason I was born
Can this cup be passed on
Lord, I pray Your will be done in this world...
Third Day is no stranger to writing songs about God in the first person - see "You Are Mine", "Love Song", and "I've Always Loved You". it seems natural that sooner or later, they'd do a song written from the point of view of Jesus on His way to be crucified. The minor-key piano, cello, and eerie electronic noise that introduce the song clue us in quite early that this will be one of the album's big power ballads. Nothing wrong with that - it kind of makes the song an interesting companion to the powerful classic "Thief". Perhaps it develops into a more standard mid-tempo rock chorus a bit too soon, but there's still a strong, believable sense of compassion and conviction here - Mac's attempt to channel the imagined thoughts of his Savior come across as genuine. The buildup of emotions wears off more quickly here, despite another fairly solid guitar solo - the strings eventually start to take over the song, and they're powerful enough, but it kind of becomes apparent that the strength of the music is coming from someone other than Third Day here. What starts off promising becomes a rote exercise that narrowly escapes wearing out its welcome by the end of its five minutes.
How Do You Know
You're thinking that you've got all the answers
You've got my situation figured out
But you're only seeing part of the picture
There's so much more that you don't know about...
Lyrically, this is probably one of the songs I appreciate most on the album. Musically - I don't know, it kind of rocks, but it does so in a slower, more forced way that can sometimes be a bit of a headache. Mac is trying to be more vulnerable about his position as a Christian celebrity here, asking the audience how on Earth they can claim to know what he's supposed to be doing. It kind of works both ways - he's asking them whether they have the right to judge how he should be behaving, and he's also asking those who put him on a pedestal if he really belongs there, given his own weaknesses and the possibility that he might misinterpret what God is telling him. It's a thoughtful lyric that gets a bit bogged down by noisiness and an insistent melody that doesn't really retain my attention. A more unique musical approach might have worked better than the workmanlike rock framework that they came up with here.
Mountain of God
Sometimes I think of where it is I've come from
And of the things I've left behind
But of all I've had, what I possessed
Nothing can quite compare with what's in front of me...
Enter another big ol' power ballad. That's what you'll be getting for the rest of the record, actually. This one holds echoes of a Steven Curtis Chapman classic, "The Mountain", as it states the beauty of being able to see things from God's point of view during a brief encounter with the Almighty, but knowing that life can't be lived perpetually in such a lofty place. Life requires going through "the valley" as well - these metaphors are really so well-worn within Christian circles that the band doesn't really have to delve into 'em in order to use 'em in a song. That means that they fill it instead with a lot of half-thought-out lyrics about following a road, losing one's way, lots of vague stuff like that. The song finds a little bit of soul when the much-acclaimed Ashley Cleveland shows up to sing duet with Mac (the girl always gets rave reviews, but mainstream CCM only seems to notice her when she shows up on somebody else's album), but that's not enough to save the song from collapsing under its own weight in the end.
Love Heals Your Heart
Everybody has a wall to climb
That was built to guard the pain that holds them captive
Every smile that they would hide behind
Will try to mask the hurt beneath the surface...
Joining the poorly-chosen mainstream single "I Believe" in the lyrical crapfest department is another unfortunately weak turn from Brad Avery, who really should stick to playing his instrument. He tries to communicate something heartfelt about mankind's tendency to put up emotional walls when hurt, and the ability of God's love to break through those defenses, but all he can come up with is a lyric that basically tells us, "Bad stuff happens, and then love fixes it all, yay!" Then the band fills it out with a melody and rhythm that totally tread water - there's nothing interesting about this song whatsoever. I honestly wonder if Third Day puts half the effort into the back half of their albums that they put into the front - the true classics from their last three studio albums have been almost uniformly stuffed into the front half, while the back half gets boring stuff like this.
The Sun Is Shining
Yesterday I found that everything I knew was wrong
It was upside down, the life I thought I had was gone...
Hey wait, didn't we already have a song about shining? Actually, this one has a gentle musical mood that reminds me of "When the Rain Comes", but with less interesting instrumental accompaniment. I can see the subtle mood that the band is trying to convey - something soft and sublime like the first rays of sun peeking threw on a dew-drenched early morning. But the ordinary instrumentation keeps the song from really sounding powerful, so it just kind of floats through, revisiting vague themes of hope amidst loss that have been better described earlier in the album.
'Cause you've wrestled demons every day
And they've dragged you to your knees
But in your weakness, you will learn to find
That I will always be your strength...
Third Day just hasn't been able to come up with a powerful album closer since "Give" on Time. Nevertheless, they give it a good try with "Rise Up", which beats "I Will Hold My Head High" and the highly-overrated "Nothing Compares" by quite a bit. Not ending with a ballad is a nice change of pace, though the tempo here barely qualifies the song as anything other than that - it's a nondescript mid-tempo tune that thankfully starts to blossom into an emotional jam session before its six minutes are up. The writer of this vaguely encouraging tune is... you guessed it... Brad Avery. And that tells you that you can pretty much tune out the lyrics (Lee and Powell are just a lot stronger in this department), which do nothing other than telling us to get up off the ground and stop feeling sorry for ourselves. Just ignore that and enjoy the semblance of celebration that the last few minutes of instrumental goodness provide. It's nothing earth-shattering, but at least the band goes out on a semi-strong note.
I can admire Third Day for actually retaining its five members and keeping their sound consistently recognizable for over 10 years. But I'm thinking that they're gonna need to infuse their music with a little more color and variety if they want to avoid devolving into a pleasantly nondescript adult contemporary band. They proved with a few songs that they can still rock, and they can write a compelling lyric that goes beyond the empty but feel-good norm of Christian radio when they really want to, so I'm not sure why they insist on playing in the kiddie pool. They've always been fairly transparent, but on albums like Conspiracy No. 5 and their self-titled, they wrote about interesting and sometimes challenging subjects. That old fire needs to come back - they've gotta do more than just rock to impress us.
In summary, I'd recommend Wherever You Are to devoted Third Day fans only. Others may get some casual pleasure out of It, but most of the album likely won't stick. If you loved everything the band has been doing recently, then by all means, pick this one up - I think it's got more staying power than Wire, anyway. But if you're just casually interested in their previous radio hits, all you'll need to do is wait around - the better tunes from this album (and likely a few of the lesser ones) will hit Christian radio soon enough, I'm sure.
Cry Out to Jesus $1.50
I Can Feel It $2
Keep on Shinin' $1
Carry My Cross $1
How Do You Know $1
Mountain of God $.50
Love Heals Your Heart -$.50
The Sun Is Shining $0
Rise Up $.50
Mac Powell: Lead vocals, guitars
Mark Lee: Guitars
Brad Avery: Guitars
Tai Anderson: Bass
David Carr: Drums