Word Label Group
Release Date: May 17th 2019
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- It’s Gonna Get Better
- I Look to You (feat. Social Club Misfits)
- Heaven on Earth
- You Know Me Better
- For Worse or Better
- I Believe
- God is For Us
- All Free
- Autobiography (When I Found You)
Stars Go Dim burst on the scene in 2015. For me at least. Sure the band was making music long before then, in fact, the band itself was birthed way back in 2008, as a side project of a couple of members of Pillar. Now more than 10 years later, Stars Go Dim is much more than just a ‘side project’. This full-time ministry, Stars Go Dim has in fact been under the radar for all these years, that is until a few years ago. Releasing Love Gone Mad and Between Here and Now back in 2008 and 2011 respectively, it was their signing to Word Entertainment at the beginning of 2015 that led to quite possibly one of the biggest label debuts of any new artist of that particular year. Their self titled debut album released in October 2015 digitally and January 2016 physically, that led to many sought-after radio singles like ‘You are Loved’, ‘Walking Like Giants’, their not-that-popular-yet-still-popular-in-Australia ‘Stars’ as well as their retake on hymn ‘Doxology’. The band’s self titled label debut is in fact one of my favourites of 2015, and one of the most cohesive albums of 2015, period. Fast forward to 2019, and we see lead singer Chris Cleveland delivering another project, this time the band’s sophomore label album in Better, comprising of all six songs from their Better EP released in September 2018, alongside a few of their singles released in the first few months of 2019. While it is not known whether it is just Chris these days, or whether it’s the full band, Stars Go Dim nevertheless has always the knack to pull in the listener with a poignant melody and a heartfelt moment, and Better is no different.
BETTER is finally here! I’ve had many of these songs since early 2017 and have released many 1 by 1 over the last year, but I’m so happy that you can finally hear them in their entirety today. Songs are like little polaroids in a scrapbook. The kind my mom used to haul out of the closet when we were kids to show us what life was like before we could remember. I’m not sure those exist anymore with the rise of cell phones and technology, but for me, that’s how I feel about my records. My latest project, BETTER, is simply that… little polaroids of real life told through songs. The past few years have been full of transition, pain, hurt, redemption, joy, love… full of life. I hope that’s what you hear when you listen to these songs. It’s just me being honest about what was happening at the time. I’m grateful for each moment and I’m grateful for the journey my family and I have been on in life and how that’s been expressed through these songs. My hope is that you can enjoy these songs in any season of life you might be in and know that on the other side of faith is joy and the life we were meant to live. A BETTER life.
It is in this quote above by Chris from a recent Instagram post about the album, that I can appreciate his music all the more, and see the heart and emotion behind a majority of the songs on this collection of 12 tracks. While a fair amount of songs on his 12 track album released at numerous points throughout 2018 and 2019, prior to this release in May, I have since thoroughly enjoyed this album as a whole, and though not as impactful, soulful and stirring as the band’s Word Label Group debut project in 2015, there’s still a lot of gems to discover with the band’s second full-length offering. Lead singer Chris Cleveland, vocally reminding me of Justin Engler from Abandon, Samuel Jay Hancock from Luminate, as well as worship artist Phil Wickham; delivers ‘Heaven on Earth’with fervent passion and enthusiasm, even if the music in the background seems to be a little electronically drawn out and light in comparison to much of the music on their self titled debut album. Despite this one nit-pick, the lyrics make up for the music- big time. In fact, I reckon this song ‘Heaven on Earth’ has some of the most challenging lyrics I’ve heard in all of the band’s discography thus far- ‘…take my life and let it be, set on fire for all to see, break me down, build me up again, don’t leave me the way I’ve been, take my heart into Your hands, come and finish what You began, til I seek Your kingdom first, til I shine, shine like heaven on earth…’ These lyrics above ought not to be sung lightly, as we realise that it is in the moment of surrendering our own plans that we find that as we seek the things not of this world and not of ourselves but to see the heart and follow what He longs to bring to fruition in society today, we can be free of expectations placed upon us by our parents and even ourselves. All we have to do is be a good follower, and shine like heaven on earth, being a conduit of His love to everyone we meet.
Releasing at the end of May 2018, ‘I Look to You’ seems like a weird pairing- giving both Stars Go Dim and Social Club Misfits airplay in the same song, and while at times it can seem like the rap that both Fern and Marty deliver can be a little out of place when compared to the flow of the song in general; the song itself provides to us a theme of always looking to God for our questions, allowing Him to be our source for hope, comfort, love and peace that we often need on a daily basis. While both Fern and Marty of Social Club Misfits aren’t necessarily the best rappers I’ve heard recently (leave it to artists like GAWVI, Lecrae, KB, Andy Mineo and Steven Malcolm to be, in some ways, much more cohesive and articulate than Social Club Misfits, for whatever reason), what Fern and Marty nevertheless have is passion and heart, and this shines through on ‘I Look to You’, making it a surprisingly enjoyable track. ‘Pieces’, another song released in 2018, is probably the most spiritually ambiguous track Stars Go Dim has ever done…and that’s ok. A song that can hopefully reach listeners who may only listen solely to mainstream music; ‘Pieces’ presents to us a myriad of questions, of what we are in this life, and whether we’re just ‘…pieces of a puzzle that’s unfinished, just chapters of a story that’s unwritten, if we’re pixels in an image of the future, what a beautiful picture…’ Reminding us all to ask the tough questions, and figure out if we believe that we are just pieces of a big picture, or if our lives sum up to and amount to more than just the mundane and run-of-the-mill; Chris delivers a powerful melody that’ll hopefully be on pop mainstream radio in the upcoming months ahead.
‘All Free’ is a pop Citizen Way-esque high energy 3 minute pop anthem as Chris and Stars Go Dim invite us to believe into the fact that are all free, each and every one of us. Not a select few, but all, that Christ died for everyone. We are free, and God is handing out that freedom, and it is up to us to believe and accept into that or not. While such a theme like this is heavy, it is wrapped up nicely in the form of a radio friendly pop song, and thus, ‘All Free’ does what it needs to do- be a catalyst for many as they hear the notion and truth that we are free when we come to Christ with all our worries and troubles at His feet. ‘I Believe’, another song released on Better EP (along with ‘All Free’), is a great ballad and in fact, delivers some of the most heartfelt and emotive lyrics I’ve heard in any Stars Go Dim song…ever. As Chris himself sings out ‘…when the questions never have an answer, when a miracle’s the only option left, Jesus I know that You hear me praying, even here, it’s not over yet…’, I realise that such a song like this, is one to be sung in both the valleys and the high-tops, the despair moments and the praise ones too. A reminder that God is with us always; Chris continues to delve into heartfelt and necessary themes, with songs like ‘It’s Gonna Get Better’, the first song on Better and a track that full of comfort and hope as we realise that everything we face in life is going to lead to a better thing than what we have been experiencing before; and ‘For Worse or Better’, a song that Chris sings for his wife and is a melody that is to reinforce commitment and love, all wrapped up in a 3 minute pop anthem.
Throughout the rest of the album, we are met with songs of joy and hope, of comfort and power, but equally songs that hopefully challenge and allow us to look inward and see if our beliefs about each other and God align with His or not. ‘Revival’ incorporates layers upon layers of electronics, and the technique of no percussion in the choruses, to create a moment of eerily familiarisation as Chris delves into the theme of revival and how we ought to strive for that rather than just to survive each day. ‘Invisible’ brings to the fore the forgotten heroes in everyday life as Chris aims to honour women and mothers everywhere who do a relentless and at times underappreciated job at holding society together, while ‘If God is For Us’, though at times suffers from a massive bout of repetition in the chorus, nevertheless provides the much-needed theme that if God is for us, we ought not to be afraid of any danger, that we cannot be separated from God’s love; in any circumstance. Album ender ‘Autobiography’ employs a gospel choir and a great lyrical motif that connects books and autobiographies to songs and personal moments within them; as Chris invites us into the theme of finding God, that after we find Him, we can rest knowing that He can and will satisfy everything that we need or even desire.
Then there’s ‘You Know Me Better’, one of my favourites by Chris and Stars Go Dim, ever! A song that allows us to worship and declare that God knows us better than we often think, the melody delivers soul and passion, emotion and heart, as Stars Go Dim offer declarations about ourselves that often we can overlook because of this busy crazy lifestyle we often lead. God knows us inside out, and values us completely, in fact, according to the melody, ‘…You know me as honest, You know me as good, You know me the way that I wish I could, You know me worthy, You know me love, You know me better, You know me completely, You know me through, You know me as someone who looks like You, You know me perfect, You know me strong, You know me better…’ In fact, hearing such declarations in the song makes us all confident that we can step into the destiny the Lord has set before us, free from the expectations we place upon ourselves, because God knows us better, and loves us regardless of what we do, just because of who we are to Him. As Chris voices himself, what he hopes people to obtain from the song:
“You Know Me Better” was a song I wrote with some dear talented friends that helped me get through some of the hardest times during that season. Over the years I had build my entire identity on my talent, on who I was on stage, on my voice, so when we stripped that away I didn’t know who I was at all. The lyrics to this song really spoke to me during that time: “I am who You say I am. Your word will never change, I am who You day I am … You know me as honest. You know me as good. You know me the way that I wish I could. You know me worthy. You know me loved. You know me better.” It was exactly what I needed to remind me that I was not simply what I did for a living or what I could do with my talent, but it was so much more than that. I could find my identity in something greater than myself, but also know that I was created as something GOOD. Isn’t that incredible? It’s God knowing us better than we could know ourselves but also as better people than we could know ourselves to be. Out of that came songs like “It’s Gonna Get Better”, which is an anthem for anyone stuck in a place of not being okay; but knowing it’s okay to feel that way and it will get better. Also, “For Worse or Better”, which I wrote for my wife and it’s exactly what it sounds like: reinforcement of our commitment and love wrapped up in a cool pop song. “Invisible” is a simple song I wrote for every mom out there who is working day in and day out to make all of our lives better, often times with little or no thanks. And one of my favorite last minute additions to the album, “Autobiography”, which really rounds out the record entirely and is full of joy and energy.
So there you have it… Better by Stars Go Dim…or should I rather say, by Chris Cleveland of Stars Go Dim? Or just Chris Cleveland? Nevertheless, Chris has brought to the table heart and passion, as evidenced in much of these songs. Though I believe that Better is an album long time coming- the last album released by the band was in October 2015; the songs are certainliy worth the wait, as Chris himself journeys through the last few years with these songs. Songs that span from early last year to just this month, all collated on this 12-song album, Chris delivers yet another cohesive song list, abeit not as much compared to his previous album. Nevertheless, this is an album certain to be enjoyed if you love worship, Stars Go Dim, pop music that can relate to both mainstream and Christian; well, just anyone who loves music, I guess. As I finish off this review, let me leave this with Chris’s own musings on the album and what he wants us all to gain from hearing the songs from first track ‘It’s Gonna Get Better’ to last track ‘Autobiography’. Well done Chris (a.k.a. Stars Go Dim) for such a relevant and heartfelt album, one that will continue to be replayed in months and even years to come.
Better is such an interesting word when you think about it—how specific it can be, or how broad. “I hope to have a better year.” “I’m going to a better father.” We are all striving for better in one way or another—better days, better finances, better health, better relationships, etc. Over the past couple of years my life has drastically changed. I’d dare say I’m not the same person at all that I was two years ago, and that’s a good thing. That’s life. We go through seasons of great joy, sorrow, pain, hurt, rebuilding, strength. These songs that I’m releasing are really autobiographical of all of those seasons in my life. I had been leading worship at a megachurch in Oklahoma for 10 years, traveling full time, and had a beautiful wife who was holding our home and family together by herself with our three young children. Something had to give, so we stepped out of everything that was comfortable and safe in our lives, and we trusted God. Maybe we trusted him for the first time, if I’m honest. We moved across the country. I stepped away from the church, and I took six months off completely—like, I didn’t do anything! For a type 3 enneagram (achiever), that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. During that time we were allowed to rest, to heal, to regain our faith. I was able to write about it, and to put a soundtrack to those moments—moments of loss and struggle and moments of hope and joy! That’s what these songs are.
3 songs to listen to: You Know Me Better, Autobiography, Heaven on Earth
RIYL: Matthew West, Newsboys, 7eventh Time Down, Paul Colman Trio