Love and Radiation
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2007 1 Jun
- Love and Radiation
- You You You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)
- Before You Break My Heart
- We Could Be Brilliant
- Let's Rock Tonight
- Jesus on the Radio
- There's Gotta Be Something
- The Song of the Year
- In a World Where Nothing's Wrong (You're Alright)
- Like Hallelujah
- Take Me a Way
Let's face it. Ian Eskelin has done some great stuff dabbling with techno and electronic pop as a solo artist. But in his fifteen years of music, most know him best as the mastermind behind the band All Star United.
Ah, remember All Star? They had that irresistibly fun, hook-laden sunny pop/rock sound, with an interesting lyrical mix ranging from the explicitly vertical to the extremely sardonic. Hard to believe it's been ten years since they released their debut, and harder still to accept its been five years since Revolution in 2002. Most, like me, probably assumed Eskelin had given up on the band, having gone back to a solo career (2004's Save the Humans) and producing other artists (Stellar Kart, Krystal Meyers).
However, Eskelin knows when he's on to something good, and though he's plenty busy crafting music with others, All Star remains his chief creative outlet. So to the surprise of everyone, Love and Radiation released in the UK back in 2006 before finally making it to the States a year later through 7Spin Music. I'm happy to report that it's a return to form for the band.
You might chalk it up to the ever-rotating lineup—this album is a veritable who's who of members past. Drummer Christian Crowe is back, having played on the first two albums, and Adrian Walther also returns after playing bass on 1998's International Anthems for the Human Race. In the meantime, guitarist Mike Payne continues a tenure that started with Revolution, while longtime friend Brian Whitman steps up to guitar after merely singing backing vocals on previous albums.
But more than musicianship, songwriting seems even more responsible for revitalizing All Star's sound. For example, Doug McKelvey co-wrote eight songs between the first two albums, yet only contributed to one on Revolution. Seeing his name in the credits for seven tracks on Love and Radiation suggests he's partly the reason the last album was such a departure and this one such a return.
Regardless, everything fans originally loved about the original All Star United is here—sugary sweet melodies, lively rock energy, bright harmonies, and pop hooks galore. I'd forgotten just how good this band was at fusing punch guitars with bass licks and powerhouse drumming, topped with some keyboard lines to boot. And of course, the sound wouldn't be complete without the distinctive blend of wit, fun, and vertical focus, similar to newsboys.
Many of the songs rely on the familiar theme of finding strength in weakness and brokenness through Christ, as heard in "Before You Break My Heart" and "We Could Be Brilliant," though worded with far more personality: "I'm tired of trying to deliver/So done pretending I'm divine/It leaves me longing to uncover/Expose the bullet holes so you can shine." Like C.S. Lewis' description of Aslan, Eskelin and company use the title track to address the seemingly contradictory loving-yet-dangerous nature of God, while "In a World Where Nothing's Wrong (You're Alright)" subtly takes on moral and spiritual ambiguity. The ballad "Take Me a Way" is a cleverly worded prayer to fill our emptiness with the one thing that will satisfy, and "Jesus on the Radio" makes a nice metaphor for tuning our souls to God in a dry and barren cultural wasteland.
Yet the one that people will be talking about most is "The Song of the Year," a delightfully none-too-understated blast at Christian music culture. Yes, it's ironic that Eskelin wrote it before receiving a Song of the Year Dove nomination for co-writing Stellar Kart's "Jesus & Me," but his beef is not with the GMA. The point is to challenge our motivations for creating art and using the name of Jesus in a song. Is it sincere, or is it marketing? Stuff like this indicates that Eskelin is the second most provocative songwriter in Christian music behind Derek Webb.
In turn, this is the second best album All Star has made since their 1997 debut. The first album was always fun, often uplifting, sometimes smart, and occasionally satirical, but it never relied overly on fluff, whereas Love and Radiation has its share of cheesy moments. It's surely intentional, but a title like "You You You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)" tells you off the bat there's not much depth. Likewise, "Let's Rock Tonight" is a knowingly cliché d rallying cry to let our light shine, but it isn't countered with any significant depth. And "There's Gotta Be Something" is fine, though it feels like another formulaic song about finding deeper purpose.
The thing is, I don't mind the fluff much, as it only comprises part of the album. Besides, the debut album was the closest thing to perfect for its kind, which makes it hard for the other albums to live up to. Love and Radiation remains an infectiously fun and occasionally thoughtful effort that reminds us why we fell in love with All Star United in the first place. They've done better, but there's still nobody that does it better.