TobyMac – Life After Death

Forefront Records / Capitol CMG

Release Date: August 19th 2022

Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre

TobyMacLife After Death (Amazon mp3/iTunes)

Track Listing:

  1. Help is On the Way (Maybe Midnight)
  2. The Goodness (feat. Blessing Offor)
  3. Deeper (feat. Tauren Wells)
  4. Show Up, Choose Love (feat. Jon Reddick)
  5. Promised Land (feat. Sheryl Crow)
  6. Everything About You (feat. Marlee)
  7. Life On It (feat. Sarah Reeves)
  8. Faithfully
  9. Cornerstone (feat. Zach Williams)
  10. Found (feat. Terrian & Wande)
  11. Fire’s Burnin’ (feat. Cory Asbury)
  12. Space (feat. Kevin Max & Michael Tait)
  13. 21 Years
  14. I’m Sorry (a lament)
  15. Rest (feat. Terrian & GabeReal)

TobyMac needs no introduction. No, he really doesn’t. We’ve been giving Toby coverage on the website for quite some time now, and it’s been an unspoken understanding that his music is perhaps one of a few that has lasted the test of time all these years. In fact, dare I say that TobyMac (alongside other artists like Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, DC Talk, Steven Curtis Chapman, Carman, Rich Mullins, Newsboys, Delirious? and Audio Adrenaline) is quite possibly an artist who has had major success in the 1990s, that has continued to stay relevant and relatable in this ever-changing culture- maybe even more so now than back then? Sure, artists’s popularity change with the decades- artists like Rich Mullins and Carman have since left us to be with God all too soon, and their music aren’t as familiar with people now compared to back when each of these artists released material; but what still remains are the songs of these bands and artists- their message, impact, and influence, in this time now, is very much necessary as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, even 20. In his mid 50s, Toby is still energetic as ever, and enjoys making music. It’s clearly evident by the various music videos and albums he has created since the start of his solo album career way back in the early 2000s; that he’s not stopping anytime soon.

While die-hard fans of DC Talk (yes, the band that Toby was in back in the day) have lamented the loss of a passionate and innovative band; what has transpired from the indefinite hiatus of the group, is a career that is fast becoming one of the most respected and admired in recent CCM history. With career topping radio singles spawning from his illustrious and dynamic career thus far- from songs like “Made to Love”, “City on our Knees”, “Lose My Soul”, “Tonight”, “Get Back Up” and “Me Without You”, to “Irene”, “Gone”, “Atmosphere”, “Burn For You” and “Speak Life” to name a few; it was (and quite possibly still will remain), his 2015 studio album This is Not a Test that has become one of the most musically diverse and universally praised albums of his career thus far. Spawning hits from that album, like ‘Til the Day I Die’, ‘Love Broke Thru’, ‘Move (Keep Walkin’)’, ‘Feel It’, ‘Backseat Driver’ and ‘Love Feels Like’ (featuring the reunion of DC Talk); Toby’s steady flow of albums continued to be his best asset- following on from This is Not a Test in 2015, was a live album Hits Deep that was released in 2016- a review of that CD/DVD can be seen hereThe Elements closely followed in 2018 (with songs like the title track, ‘I Just Need U’, ‘Everything’, ‘See the Light’, ‘Scars (Come With Livin’)’ and ‘Hello Future’), but what Toby experienced lately (in 2019), caught media attention and garnered a lot of press- when Toby’s family lost his first-born son TRU-Dog, and he passed away. While it’s no surprise that Toby continues to wear his heart (and faith) on his sleeve, his firm belief in Christ came to a test during that time period- just like how Steven Curtis Chapman had to wrestle with questions during 2008 when his daughter Maria died, so too did Toby wrestle with what he had to go through in late 2019.

Since Truett’s passing, there were a lot of changes for Toby. ‘21 Years’ released in early 2020 and was inspired by his son’s death and him processing that, while ‘I’m Sorry (a lament)’ was a song in response to all the civil unrest and social issues brought to the fore in light of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. ‘Help is On the Way (Maybe Midnight)’ released early 2021), and reminded us all, of the help that God continuously gives to us, even during the metaphorical times and hours close to midnight, when we can’t even see help coming (but the Lord delivers His help at just the right moment and time in our lives, that we can’t help but trust Him in all circumstances. ‘Promised Land’ closely followed along from ‘Help is On the Way’; and gave us all a sense of intentional and purposeful longing for a promised land we all know we’ll go to one day (heaven), but still living in the here-and-now tension of wanting that same promised land to be realised and tangible, in our personal lives, here on earth. Now here we are in August 2022, and Toby’s since released his highly anticipated album (and contender for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year at next year’s Dove Awards), Life After Death, which examines songs that he has written and wrestled with, post-Truett and post-2019.

Unveiled as a 15 song tracklist, Life After Death showcases Toby and his thought processes, his musings and his writings, post-Tru. Ever since Truett’s death, I don’t even think that Toby himself thought he was going to write upbeat songs again. ‘21 Years’, written shortly after Truett’s passing, was a poetic tribute to Toby’s son, but it was a melodic ballad- so too were other songs like ‘Promised Land’, ‘Faithfully’ and ‘Everything About You’. The first upbeat song written for the record by Toby, was ‘Help is on the Way’. That song, released in February 2021, is a great reminder of God’s faithfulness, reminder that His help is always coming, no matter if it is midnight, or midday, as this song suggests. We may think that God’s love comes ‘late’ (in accordance with our own earthly, narrow-minded human schedule), but that is never the case. God’s love, grace, mercy, help and everything else that the Lord freely bestows upon us, comes at just the right time, and thus a song as upbeat as this, gives us comfort in knowing that we can trust our Father in all circumstances, even if by all other earthly measurement, it is assumed that we can’t. Toby’s song is a great start to the album, and one that sets the tone, thematically and sonically, for the rest of the songs that come after track #1, on Life After Death.

‘…That was all I had in me [sad, teary-eyed ballad-y songs]. I just started asking God, ‘What is going on? Is that all I’m going to be able to write? For the rest of my life?…’
‘…What an image to hold on to, that the God of all creation is rolling up his sleeves on my behalf. And I just, I just held on to that and started writing immediately…’
‘…I had no music yet, just melody and a lyric in my head. ’Help is On the Way (Maybe Midnight)’ is the first time I think I felt sort of a turnaround where I could express hope. I felt hope through it all. But (the song) is the first time I could express it in an artistic, creative way. The first time I could scream hope from the mountaintop…’

‘Help is on the Way’ was unveiled last February, while Toby also unveiled other tracks sporadically throughout 2021/22, prior to the release of Life After Death. ‘21 Years’ released early 2020, and I reckon, would have be one of the hardest songs Toby ever had to write and record (because of the subject matter of Truett’s passing). And I’m sure everyone would know why a song like that would’ve been hard to write, let alone sing and perform live in concerts for the past year- if you don’t know about Toby’s son, then google is a good help, and we can know that ’21 Years’ was borne out of that season of difficulty and trials. It’s very sobering and humbling to see a man who has lost his first-born son, and still through all the pain that comes from such a tragedy, still preaches the gospel of Christ to people. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have blamed Toby (or even Steven Curtis Chapman back in the day) if he questioned his own faith after his son’s death. Maybe in another life or another universe, Toby would’ve deconstructed or maybe would’ve walked away from Christianity altogether. Yet here we are in 2022, and Toby still preaches the gospel. That is a great testament to God’s grace and mercy, right? Sure, people who have suffered loss like a child exiting the world before their time, will never be the same again. I’m sure Toby hasn’t been the same since, either. Yet ’21 Years’ shows us this one thing- that regardless of personal circumstances, songs can be an avenue of healing, and maybe, ’21 Years’ could be a source of hope and healing for Toby himself as well as each of us hearing it.

‘Promised Land’, a song co-written with ex-Stellar Kart frontman Adam Agee (and released as a duet with singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow), was unveiled digitally shortly after ‘Help is On the Way’- that song is as real and authentic as they come. ‘Promised Land’ is a tear-jearker- sung from the perspective of a persona who’s working just to make ends meet, we see this question being asked, of when’s someone’s promised land, and if it’s coming now, this side of heaven, or the next. The song was actually inspired by Toby’s grandfather, a former Wyoming County miner who passed away of Black Lung disease, and how the song was phrased, depicts a scenario where the persona (maybe even from the perspective of Toby’s grandfather himself) longs for a promised land to be realised for himself, wanting things to change, but also realising that maybe the promised land won’t be in the here and now. A song that allows us all to have empathy for those who work twice as hard as us (and maybe receive twice as little in return), we are called to help those less fortune, and this song can hopefully allow our eyes to see far beyond just our own little bubble, to see and understand that our lives ought not to be as comfortable as we make them out to be- our grandparents had a harder life than us, and so our gratitude and appreciation ought to reflect such a sacrifice they put in, so that we can reap the benefits of their work.

It is because of the impact and meaning this song ‘Promised Land’ has had on Toby himself, that he shot the music video of the song in Toby’s grandfather’s hometown of Glen Rogers, as well as the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. The song itself makes a parallel between the promised land in Exodus, when God made the Israelites wait for quite some time (I believe it’s about 400 or so years). We then see Toby sing either about himself or about his grandfather, asking the question of where the promised land is- for himself, for his family and friends who have been toiling and working really hard, even asking the question for us all, who have been in some sort of mundane autopilot pre-COVID-19, and now we need to re-evaluate and re-align; which I hope this song allows us to do. Toby’s new song is one of hope and poignancy, and one that can maybe call us into action, too. As we as people living in this COVID-19 world need to ask ourselves where our promised land is, hopefully Toby can bring us into a space where we can be ok with asking the hard question of where our promised land lies, and who it lies in, and if we don’t know where, then why not, and maybe we should just start going on that journey, sooner than later.

‘I’m Sorry (a lament)’ is a song written in 2019 and released in late 2020- people may conflate this song as being a response to COVID as well as in response to George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, and yet this song is much more of a ‘saying I’m sorry for misrepresenting the gospel’ instead. Yes, it may seem as though the song, in and of itself, has pro-BLM themes sprinkled throughout the track, yet this spoken word/declaratory anthem, written pre-COVID (and therefore pre-George Floyd’s murder), is nevertheless a song of holy repentance, and acknowledging what we have done wrong as a human race, in the sight and the eyes of the Lord. In Toby’s own words, ‘…over a year ago as I stood with my wife and a group of friends on the Arbel Cliffs in Israel, our tour guide began to recite by memory the sermon on the mount… completely unannounced. The words of Jesus from Matthew 5, 6 and 7 struck me as If I had never read them before… I realized just how far we have strayed from what Jesus is asking of us. This (song) is simply my response, not judgement. I am deeply sorry for how far we have fallen short. And Godly sorrow leads to repentance. The church is God’s plan, and I love it… that’s why I had to write the song, “I’m sorry…’

Throughout the rest of the album, Toby continues to impart themes of hope and joy, of sorrow and wondering ‘what if’, as we see this new side of Toby that is much more appreciative of life and relationships, ever since one of his own, is no longer, anymore. ‘The Goodness’ is Toby’s first official single of 2022 (with ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Help is On the Way’ being unveiled in 2021, and the songs ‘21 Years’ and ‘I’m Sorry (a lament)’ released the year prior), and is a powerful collaboration between himself and Blessing Offor, a fellow CCM artist also signed to Capitol CMG. With each of Toby’s prior 4 song releases having different pacing, thematic elements and ‘vibes’, ‘The Goodness’ is a return to the jovial nature of a lot of Toby’s songs gone by, and while Toby will never be the same (in light of Truett’s death), there is nevertheless a reminder through ‘The Goodness’ that you can still experience the goodness of God, even if your life doesn’t ‘feel’ good, or even if you feel as though good things haven’t happened to you in a while. Or as Toby himself puts it, ‘…[a] saint is not someone who is good but someone who experiences THE GOODNESS of God…’ ‘Deeper’, a collaboration between Toby and Tauren Wells, encourages the listener to go deeper- deeper in relationship with the Lord, deeper in relationship with people, deeper in relationship with family and friends, delving deeper, past the ‘surface questions’, and onto the questions that really solidify and familial relationship and a friendship that can last decades beyond decades. Or as the lyrics suggest, ‘…let’s stop and have a conversation, tell me what’s really goin’ on, you probably feel some reservation, real talk is fadin’ like a song, ’cause I been lost in my thoughts for a couple of days, you know I can’t catch my mind when it’s runnin’ away, if you can make the time, can me and you conversate? Let’s push aside the noise and marinate on some things…’

‘Show Up, Choose Love’, is a promotional single unveiled by Toby prior to Life After Death (2 weeks prior), and covers the subject that has been near to the top of Toby’s heart- racial unity and reconciliation. Collaborating with John Reddick, a black worship pastor from Memphis, Tennessee, Toby’s duet with Jon is a reminder that black and white folk can still come together and sing about issues that are indeed dear to both the hearts of these two races. The song itself is a powerful pop track that utilises both black gospel and jazz sonic elements, while also instilling funk as well as a gospel choir, reminding us all, of Toby’s own musical versatility, and again highlighting that different races and cultures have different musical expressions, and that ought to promote unity and community, instead of more division (which unfortunately is what could be seen to happen, at least on the surface). As Toby himself relays, ‘…people coming together from different races is something that’s always been important to me. I got to do a song with my worship pastor and my friend—my dear friend—Mr. John Reddick. John’s voice emotes passion like no one I’ve ever been around, and he pushed me to do the same about something that’s important to both of us. Song’s called “Show Up Choose Love.” And sometimes, it’s just that simple…’ ‘Everything About You’, collaborated with his daughter Marlee, is a sombre moment where Toby sings about Truett, and relays things about his son that he still misses even now- it’s indeed a sad song, but a necessary one, because it allows us listeners to understand that grief is a part of life, that expressing that you miss someone is ok, natural, and is something that has to happen, onto the road to healing, hope, encouragement and forgiveness.

‘Life on It’ has Toby collaborating with Sarah Reeves, of which he praises her voice in these powerful words he declares on Instagram ‘…I’ve always loved the vibe and the vocal prowess of Miss Sarah Reeves. I mean, her voice is so modern—unlike anybody in our industry. It’s like an instrument. So I asked her to come in and sing on this song, “Life on It,” which was me getting back to hip-hop a little. And I thought, “She will take it home.” And she did…’ The song itself is about standing up for you beliefs, living for something and staying true to what you know is true- the gospel of Jesus Christ, is something that we as believers of Christ and as Christians, have to stake our lives upon, if we believe it to be true. ‘Faithfully’ is one of the lone TobyMac only songs on this album (alongside ‘21 Years’, ‘I’m Sorry (a lament)’ and ‘Help is On the Way’), which speaks of the vulnerableness Toby felt, and the raw moments of grief, confusion, questioning and asking of the Lord, post-2019, and how He cried and called upon the Lord to faithfully show him a way out; whilst ‘Cornerstone’ has Toby collaborate with rock/country/CCM artist Zach Williams in this powerful track that elevates Christ as the cornerstone in our lives, regardless of our own circumstances and situations. As the lyrics of the chorus remind us, ‘…the sun goes up, the sun comes down, this whole world keeps spinnin’ around, and I’m here travellin’ down this long and winding road, seasons come and seasons go, I been high, and I been low, but I’m standin’ on the only Rock I know, You’re my cornerstone…’

‘Found’ has Toby going back to his rap roots, as we see a side of Toby that we haven’t witnessed in quite some time- a quasi-rap verse. Recently, maybe it’s because of age, but Toby has more-or-less resulted to singing, and now it’s nice to see Toby at least ‘try’ to rap again. Though it’s not as ‘quick’ as it once was in the past, Toby still has passion and earnest enthusiasm, and ‘Found’ is a great result. The collaboration between Toby and fellow female rapper Wande and Gotee Records artist Terrian, is perhaps one of my favourite collaborations on the whole album, with the song speaking about both Toby and Wande as they ‘rap’ autobiographical verses, and each relay this understanding that they were once lost before the Lord, but now they’re found. ‘Fire’s Burnin’ is perhaps a song that is seemingly forgettable amongst the sea of 15 tracks- nothing against the song per se, it seems like Toby and fellow collaborator Cory Asbury (yes, that Cory who wrote ‘Reckless Love’!) were having fun when creating the song; but on the whole, ‘Fire’s Burnin’ wasn’t all that impacting melodically for me, even though the song itself speaks about focusing our eyes upon the Lord, and letting our life- all of it, burn for Him from the inside out. The album ends with ‘Rest’, a 2 minute track that reminds us all, of this need of rest and this understanding that if the Lord rested on the 7th day when creating the world, then this need of rest is inbuilt within us (because we’re made in the image of God). Our need for rest shouldn’t be a sign of weakness, but rather, it is when we rest that the Lord replenishes us and gives us a revitalisation that we may think we didn’t want (but ultimately needed anyway).

And then there’s ‘Space’. Yes, it’s another DC Talk collaboration, even though DC Talk is forever on hiatus (and probably won’t be coming back anytime soon). The song itself speaks about a sorrowness that comes when there is a recognising that the space between people is only going to grow, as time moves forward, and that there’s nothing that can be done about it. As Toby himself relays in a recent Hope 103.2 interview, ‘…[Space] came a little later. I have this whole journey of these sad songs, to the scripture of ‘Help is on the Way’, to ‘The Goodness’. And it’s like this journey that I’ve kind of like explained it to you. That was like the beginning of it all, and then when I wrote ‘The Goodness’, just some other thoughts began pouring through. A little more, even though I will continue to say I’ll never be the same, man, a few more like ‘normal kind of the way Toby writes songs’ started coming. And I thought about this thing, you know. Space that gets between us and our relationships. And I know there’s people out there that still wonder, ‘like, does dc talk talk to each other, are they friends? Do they hate each other?’ Well, we text all the time. Like often. I don’t get to see them that much because they’re running, I’m running; but we text often, at least twice this week. I think people just imagine that we don’t like each other or something, but we do. But space has come between us, family time and touring. We climbed a mountain together out of college, out of university, and now we’re climbing three different mountains. So, the luxury of just being together isn’t there anymore, so this space comes between you, and sometimes it’s for a good reason, and other times, you just, life takes you in different places. So I wanted to write this song about space coming between us, and I started down the line, and I looked up and I didn’t even know it, honestly. I looked up and I go ‘am I writing about dc talk?’ like, am I writing about Michael and Kevin, and our relationships and this distance that has just come between us?…I didn’t set out for it to be autobiographical, but it ended up moving it that direction, and then I asked them if they would sing on it. At first they were like ‘does it make sense for us to do something together again, without us doing a full thing?’ and I’m like ‘it’s up to you’, and a sent them the song, and when they both heard the song, they both got back and said ‘this makes perfect sense’…that’s what we as believers are supposed to be doing [meeting people at the well]. We’re supposed to be stepping across lines and loving people well. We’re not supposed to be drawing lines. We should be stepping across them, and loving people. And then the whole outro [of ‘Space’], just the most convicting line, one of the more convicting lines in the Word of God in my opinion are ‘love keeps no record, love keeps no record of wrong’, and I just repeat that line, over and over. And it’s like, no matter what comes between us, there’s always room for reconciliation, when love is present…’

So…there you have it. Life After Death. An album that is very powerful, heartfelt, compelling, and challenging, while also laced in the joyfulness colliding with lament and sorrow that comes after a death of a loved one. It’s knowing the promise of God while still reconciling how it looks like, this side of eternity. And that is what is seen all through Toby’s album, and it’s been a blast to listen to it. And find that this album, is quite possibly my second favourite album of his (I don’t think any album could actually beat This is Not A Test…but this album sure came close!). While at first glance, one could be ‘put off’ because of a plethora of collaborations, how these songs work is by perfect design, and each track is made better because of the collaboration in and of itself. There’re upbeat songs, there’s songs of lament and being sorry, there’s songs of longing for reconciliation, and then there’s songs that recognise that the space between people may forever be there, and that’s all ok. Life is a journey to say the least, and this album by Toby is indeed one that can hopefully become someone’s soundtrack somewhere, and that in and of itself, is what makes Toby’s music so versatile. Toby is an incredible artist, and this album sure shows it, quite literally. One of my favourite albums of 2022 thus far, this is definitely a great standout album for the second half of 2022 thus far. Will Casting Crowns’s deluxe version of Healer top Life After Death and be my favourite album of 2022? Only two weeks, until I find out for sure. Well done Toby for this emotional (and impactful) album. Looking forward to how the Lord uses this album, in the upcoming months and years ahead.

5 songs to listen to: The Goodness, Promised Land, Found, Show Up Choose Love, 21 Years

Score: 5/5

RIYL: DC Talk, Colton Dixon, Britt Nicole, Group 1 Crew, Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys

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