Provident Label Group/Reunion Records
Release Date: October 14th 2016
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- What You Want
- I Have This Hope
- One Thing
- Sparrow (Under Heaven’s Eyes)
- No One Can Steal Our Joy
- Control (Somehow You Want Me)
- Fighting For You
- I Confess
‘…I think with this record, I started to realize how a lot of my dreams weren’t big enough and that they were very much mine—like getting signed, getting played on the radio. Those aren’t the kind of dreams that will satisfy your heart. If our hearts are made for a new kingdom—a new heaven and a new earth—if that’s what the bent of our souls is, then these little man-made dreams aren’t ever going to be enough. [For] God’s not as interested in the success of our career as He is the posture of our hearts. The whole theme of the record comes from believing that God’s will for my life isn’t a plan, and it’s not necessarily a dream. God’s plan for my life is the position of my heart…’ Sobering, isn’t it? This quote above from Mike Donehey, lead singer of Tenth Avenue North, arguably one of CCM’s most lyrically vulnerable and heartfelt in today’s genre of music; we see a sense of renewed maturity in both lyrics and musical arrangements on their new album Followers, that dropped on October 14th, a few days ago. Debuting their first label-backed album in 2008 (after being an indie band since the early 2000s), it was the success of songs like “By Your Side”, “Hold My Heart” and “Love is Here” that propelled this band to the achievements that came afterwards. Signed to the same label as artists like Tim Timmons, Jason Crabb, 1GN, Casting Crowns, Brandon Heath and Steven Curtis Chapman to name a few; Mike Donehey and co. have always been a band that never shied away from the uncomfortable, but still provided us with great quality music to listen to. Songs didn’t really fit into the CCM/pop mould, because the band never really made songs for that category- instead, songs like “Worn” showed us how a person can still be broken and still cry out to God for mercy and strength, while “The Struggle” reminded us all that we are free to struggle under the grace and acceptance of Christ, wrestling with God about pertinent issues deep to our hearts, rather than struggling to be free, trying to earn something that was already given freely. The 2014 album Cathedrals showcased new breakthroughs from the band, even showing us what they can do when they fuse together pop/rock with rap, collaborating with rap artists KB and Derek Minor on “For Those Who Can’t Speak”, a song that by far is one of the band’s most underrated songs and one that speaks about the longing of the ending of slavery in modern day society. Fast forward a couple more years after Cathedrals and we move to their new album- Followers.
This album is as simple as they come- 10 songs. That’s it. Not the 12 or the 14 or the longer track lengths of albums gone past. Just 10. Still, in spite of the shorter length of songs on the album, what it lacks in terms of number of songs on the album it makes up for in terms of lyrical depth and musical richness. It’s first radio single “What You Want” is testament of that. Released in April, the song was a little different in terms of style compared to Tenth Avenue North songs of the past. Presented with a more dance-pop focus as Mike encourages us all to lay down everything we have as we become more faithful followers of Christ instead of the leaders we so thought we were born to be; it has been an anthem of mine of late. Because let’s face it- and be honest. We were always told by our parents, friends, and family, that being leaders were what we were born to do. From the moment before time, man has always wanted to lead from the front. To have all the ideas, and implement them with style, grace, poise, and to encourage others to join us on our quest. Leading is something championed in this society…but to follow? We always associate follow with us just blindly accepting others ideas, to never think for ourselves and allow people in power to determine the course of action we the ‘plebs’ are taking. In fact, dare I say that in modern society, it’s become so bad that I reckon we all, and I do mean all, want to lead, and never follow? To follow someone else and abandon the plans we have for ourselves can seem to be a life subjected to uncertainty and chaos, but here is where the new song “What You Want” comes in.
As Mike offers the heartfelt words of how ‘…every day I’ve been feelin’ the pressure. I always gotta know the plan. It’s a weight that I’ve tried to shoulder. I thought I could but I can’t…’, we realise that in today’s society, we’re under pressure- to perform, to have everything planned out, to have all our ducks in a row before we make big decisions that involve us sometimes changing careers, changing where we live, whether we pursue a new relationship or not…you get the picture. Giving up being the leader and being humble enough to follow cannot be undertaken by anyone easily, myself included. Because whether we accept it or not, we all have a streak inside of us that longs to be the leader. Yet what I’ve realised, is that Jesus Himself was never a leader- He always listened to what God the Father was telling Him. If we’re made in the image of God? Then we’ll have the leadership ability within us because we’re made in the image of Him, yet we have to let go- of our pride, of our expectations, of our ability to control often things beyond our control, and to say, ‘ok, Lord, I know that I may want certain situations and outcomes to occur. Yet what I’m willing to do is to lay everything down at Your feet, to acknowledge that what You want for my life is far beyond what I could ever dream or imagine for it to be’.
This is what the song is about, and what I reckon will be one of the most profound truths to be conveyed to the listener out of any song to be recorded and submitted to radio in 2016. A dance song from Tenth Avenue North is probably one of the most unique and different styles they have undertaken, yet the theme of the track is even more remarkable and poignant. “What You Want” is one of my anthems of late, and especially this phrase in the song- ‘…there’s no greater plan that I need to know, You only ask me to follow and want what You want…’ For planning is great, but plans will change. Sure we do have to plan for the future, but know that there will be times in our lives where a curveball comes into play, where unexpected events cause us to re-route and maybe even change direction entirely. Maybe, just maybe, the course correction is often what we need, for us to refocus and remind ourselves that God always has our best interests at heart, even when we may not know it at that moment.
And then there’s songs like “I Have This Hope”, “Overflow”, “Control (Somehow You Want Me)” and “Afraid”, that, alongside “What You Want”, all released to iTunes prior to the official album release a few days ago. Each of these four, while not as popular as “What You Want” right now, still deliver in terms of emotion and powerful lyrical content, so much so that any one of these tracks could be as impactful or even more so than “What You Want”. Til such a time, we just have to listen to these 4 songs, and marvel and the songwriting ability of Mike, quite possibly one of today’s CCM songwriters that are underappreciated in his work. Nevertheless, the album starts off with “Afraid”, a song that guitarist Jeff Owen initially thought of and played it for lead singer Mike in light of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. With its opening bars being that of a synth keyboard, we are immediately drawn into what I reckon will become one of the most relatable pop/CCM tracks out of the whole year thus far. Knowing the story behind the song makes me appreciate it even more, and as we hear such an anthem for today’s society, we are reminded through these piercing words that ‘…I don’t wanna be afraid, I don’t wanna be afraid anymore, not like before…I’m safe in Your arms oh Lord…’ Though the apt title of the track- “Afraid”, the song is rather speaking faith and courage into such situations instead of fear, and as Mike himself relays to us; ‘…my treasure is not my life. As soon as you let go of your life as the treasure, then suddenly you find freedom. Someone who’s lost the fear of death is an insanely free person. [For] I don’t have to be afraid because fear, not only is it time wasted, but fear is the belief that God’s not going to get it right…’
“Overflow”, aside from “What You Want”, is probably the most upbeat track on the album, and carries a heavy synth presence along with it. Tackling the issue of what it means to follow Jesus, and that it is out of the overflow of God’s love within us that our response is to naturally share His love with those we meet, we are reminded to live, not necessarily for God, but to live because of God, and that once we have believed that it is out of God’s actions through Jesus on the cross that we can indeed live, we don’t have to necessarily do things for Him, but we just do things nonetheless because He is our Father and we are our children. “Control (Somehow You Want Me)”, quite possibly known as ‘official single #2’, is one of the brightest spots on the album. Not as musically flash as “What You Want”, nor as musically subdued as a song like “I Have This Hope”; “Control” is a song about giving up the very thing we as humans so want to hold onto. It is a realisation that God doesn’t really need us- He is one with Himself, in community as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet still He chooses to commune with the human race, and that in and of itself should give us freedom, love, hope and acceptance. To realise that it is never what we did, but what God undertook for us to be drawn back to Himself; we can rest, as we listen to this electric guitar driven melody about ‘…how You love me and somehow that frees me to open my hands up and give You control…’ Powerful and poignant isn’t it?
“I Have This Hope”, another piano and guitar led ballad, is perhaps the most emotional song the album delivers, and whenever we hear it, and whether we enjoy such a genre of music or not, I’m sure we can’t help but be affected by the song in some way. And it is a personal song for the band- guitarist Jeff Owen’s sister in law was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in February 2016, and the song was borne out of such an ordeal. Because really, how can a 32 year old mother of three who is in all purposes a good person be struck with such an affliction? “I Have This Hope” wrestles with such things, and was penned out of Jeff’s sister-in-law’s ordeal. Rooted in Isaiah 43 and penned for her so that she can read over the lyrics and be inspired by them, Mike Donehey encourages not only the rest of the band with the track, but also us listeners as well- ‘…the things I see in Scripture are really not this promise of this plan working out a certain way, but it’s the promise of His presence with us through whatever happens. God doesn’t say, ‘You will be spared of tragedy.’ He says, ‘Tragedy won’t crush you; it won’t overwhelm you; it won’t consume you. I am with you…’ While this story does have a happy ending, that on the morning of the actual recording of the song in studio, Jeff’s sister in law, who was present to hear it being recorded, received a phone call that her cancer was officially in remission; this song is also for the person who doesn’t have a happy ending- when God doesn’t answer the prayer, what then? “I Have This Hope” hopefully comforts them as well, and is nevertheless a standout, for whatever reason that comes to mind by the listener, on Followers!
“No One Can Steal Our Joy” is a CCM track that, while in the sea of 10 tracks, can easily be ‘forgettable’, nevertheless, it delivers a message that is at the root of what this album is about- that regardless of the circumstances, what happens and what doesn’t happen, our hurts, hopes, trials and triumphs, cannot take away the joy that we have and found in Christ; while “Fighting for You” is a response of sorts- sung from God’s point of view, this is a song that can easily be the answer to someone who is dealing with things that are sung about in a song like “Worn”. A reminder from God to us that He is indeed fighting our battles, this heavy electric guitar (yet still CCM) song fuses together some grunge with electronic keyboards to show us the different styles of music that can be valid enough to be submitted to radio, both now and into the future. “One Thing” is a song that cuts to the bone even during the first lyric line, as Mike imparts to us that ‘…you don’t really know what you need til you got nothing…’, and further relays a message that is similar to Sidewalk Prophets’ “Keep Making Me”- that it is when we are at our lowest that we can truly realise what we really were holding onto in the beginning- God and all His promises for us, or just the idea of God and nothing else. A song that can be tough to sing to ourselves, let alone anyone else, “One Thing” is a song that is needed at this time, and will hopefully compel listeners to search deep within themselves as they hear the track.
“I Confess”, the most musically subdued and acoustically driven song about us confessing our deepest and inner most thoughts to our Heavenly Father, ends the album on a personal note, as this 5:15 track showcases emotions of confession and apologies as we say sorry to God for all the things we did (or didn’t do) in our lives; while the song that means the most to the band as a whole, “Sparrow (Under Heaven’s Eyes)”, delivers the metaphor of sparrows and their lives, and that if God can take the time to intricately design the sparrows and take care of them, then how much more will He take care of us, those who live and breathe in the Father’s image? “Sparrow” also has a nice touch with the addition of the hymn “His Eye is On the Sparrow” added to the melody, and is a clever reminder that often, it is the hymns and hymns redone, time and time again, that impact the most, even years and years after it was written back in the day.
‘…God’s working on me to let go of this need to have the plan, this need to have the answer. Basically, way more important than knowing a 10-year plan from God is just knowing that I’m living a perpetual ‘yes’ to Him. [And] I don’t know if God’s will for my life is to play in front of 10,000 people. I don’t think that it is. I think God’s will for my life is joy, whether I play for 10,000 or 10. God’s will for my life is peace. God’s will for my life is forgiveness. And when you start dreaming that way, then you realize, ‘Oh man, I can live the dream every day’…’ Followers is an album that also short in terms of number of tracks, is anything but. Full of lyrically rich songs that are heartfelt and impactful, this collection of ten tracks are arguably some of my favourite that I’ve heard ever since 2012’s The Struggle. Mike and co. have delivered some hard-hitting messages of hope, comfort, confrontation, things that need to be discussed, like pain and doubt and where is God’s promises when things don’t work out…let’s just say that listening to this album is not for anyone who just wants a happy-go-lucky run of the mill pop album. Because a simple pop album this is not. Tenth Avenue North have pulled out all the stops with this album, and what has resulted is an album experience like no other. From songs like “What You Want” to the ballad “I Have This Hope” and the album ender “I Confess”, no one, and I repeat, no one, will leave this experience, after hearing tracks 1 through 10, unchanged. A must-have for anyone who enjoys music in general, Tenth Avenue North have wowed us again with Followers. Whatever comes next will certainly be very hard to match, quality-wise, their most recent album! Well done guys for such an impactful and poetic, poignant and life-changing album!
3 songs to listen to: I Have This Hope, Sparrow, Afraid
RIYL: for KING AND COUNTRY, MercyMe, needtobreathe, Newsboys