Sounds like … popular neo-grunge rock with more pop and less heavy metal; like Creed if they favored The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jars of Clay, and Crowded House over Metallica and Pearl JamAt a Glance … some Christians will struggle with the band's seemingly veiled faith, and some non-Christians will shy away from the band's spiritual leanings – the rest can enjoy Lifehouse as a first-rate modern pop/rock band with abstract lyrics that express their faith-based worldview.
You might say Lifehouse has amassed two separate audiences since hitting the music scene in late 2000 with their double-platinum-selling No Name Face. Much of that success can be attributed to the strength of their smash hit single "Hanging by a Moment," which was the most played track on the radio last year. Not a bad start for a Christian band with two members barely in their 20s. Wait, did I say Christian? That's a subject of minor controversy for some, which is why I say there are two different audiences for this band. Interestingly enough, Lifehouse is taking a "reverse approach" to artist development, only recently seeking distribution to Christian bookstores through a partnership with Sparrow Records. Let's put that point on hold for the moment and talk exclusively about the sound of the band's anticipated follow-up, Stanley Climbfall.
Rest assured that if you enjoyed No Name Face, you'll like the new album. Most of the principal players are back for the second round: vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Jason Wade, bassist Sergio Andrade, and even producer/songwriting collaborator Ron Aniello. Drummer Rick Woolstenhulme replaced John "Diff" Palmer shortly after the last album was recorded, touring with the band ever since; additionally, Rick's brother Sean has recently joined the band as a touring guitarist. The 12 new songs are of the same sound as the first album – grunge-influenced pop/rock in the same vein as Creed, but not as bombastic. Though the post-grunge rock sound is prevalent among today's rock bands, there are still some subtle variations among them. Whereas Creed draws heavily on a pop-metal influence that recalls Metallica and Whitesnake, Lifehouse draws more on the pop/rock sounds of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Crowded House, and Jars of Clay. The songs on Stanley Climbfall are as catchy as you'd expect, with absolutely infectious choruses. Jason Wade is proving a remarkable songwriter who makes repetitive melodies seem artful and creative, due in part to the unusual chord progressions he comes up with. Lifehouse may not be unique with their post-grunge sound, but they do it better than most other bands today.
One thing that is different about Stanley Climbfall is the intensity level. Jason gets a little more experimental with his guitar effects and the entire band kicks up the volume level considerably; Jason's vocals even reach new heights that weren't explored on the previous album. Part of this is clearly a result of a bigger production budget, but Lifehouse refrains from sounding overproduced. The band settles into a strong Led Zeppelin-like groove in the closing breakdown of the first single, "Spin," and they've never sounded more like Creed than on the hard-rocking ballad "Anchor." Meanwhile, "Out of Breath" borrows heavily from the familiar sound of Nirvana's "All Apologies." Elsewhere, the band takes on a somewhat Rubber Soul-era Beatles style for "Just Another Name," and "The Sky Is Falling" sounds like a cross between Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) and Neil Finn (Crowded House). The sound never strays too far from that of No Name Face, though, and the brief "Am I Ever Gonna Find Out?" in particular sounds fairly similar to "Sick Cycle Carousel." For the band's next hit single, I'd recommend "Take Me Away," a soaring rock anthem that seems tailor-made for radio.
Most everyone involved with Stanley Climbfall acknowledges this is a more cohesive album than No Name Face, which is to say the songs tie well together thematically. I'm not sure that necessarily makes this a better album, and I found myself missing the eclecticism of No Name Face. Of course, it took me months to gain the appreciation for that album I now have, so it's entirely possible Stanley Climbfall may be my preference someday. This album definitely will appeal to those wanting a harder rocking album that's more representative of the band's live sound.
As for the lyrics, there's little question where this band is coming from in terms of subject matter. Lifehouse eschews the term "Christian band," but they're nevertheless musicians who hold close to their Christian faith. I understand this may be uncomfortable for some non-Christians reading this review. If so, let me say that Lifehouse (like most other Christian bands) are not in the business of brainwashing through subliminal messages in music. They're simply giving their perspective on life, the universe, and everything, like every other artist on this planet. Stop reading here if you'd rather make up your own mind regarding the subject matter of these songs, with the knowledge that I highly recommend Stanley Climbfall. If you want more insight about the band and their songs, read on.
For those not in the know (including the skeptical Christians), Jason Wade and Sergio Andrade started their music careers playing worship with their local Vineyard congregation in California. Jason's parents both were missionaries, traveling around the world with their son; the two later divorced, leaving Jason with a lot of questions about his faith. All three band members give brief but thoughtful thanks to God in the album credits of No Name Face. And finally, there are the song lyrics, which may seem vague initially but take on more meaning with closer listens. Most all of the songs are rooted in Christian perspective on No Name Face, including the hits "Hanging by a Moment" and "Breathing;" and the closing song "Everything" is as much a praise song as anything else I've heard in modern worship these days. Lifehouse won't leave you scratching your head over their beliefs as Creed or Collective Soul have done. Instead Lifehouse thematically most resembles P.O.D., Jars of Clay, and Sixpence None the Richer, all bands rooted in faith whose songs require you pay close attention to what they're saying – a novel idea. The Sixpence comparison is especially appropriate, since that band recorded Jason and Ron's "Waiting on the Sun" for their upcoming Divine Discontent project.
While No Name Face wrestled with faith, doubt, and acceptance, Stanley Climbfall takes the next step with the understanding that God does not expect holiness from us, but loves us as we are. It's an album about walking forward, knowing that we will stumble along the way, stand again despite our pains, and continue to walk with God by our side the whole journey. The album's title is a personification of that daily walk ("stand, climb, fall"). Is it really all that different than the allegory presented in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress? Accepting the bad with the good in life is a stumbling block for everyone, especially those who struggle with the idea of a God who lets bad things happen to good people. "Wash" demonstrates God's ever-present comfort when Jason sings, "You wash over me like rain … You wash over me like sunshine." Though one possibly could argue that "Anchor" is about any committed relationship, the lyrics suggests a deeper and more eternal presence: "I know that I'll never be alone / You will never let me go / You are my anchor."
"The Sky Is Falling" is about complacency and was written as a reaction to the days following September 11, observing how people could too easily fall back into their regular routines. It also could be an expression of despair towards our easy return to sin, or the fear that so many never will truly understand Christ's love: "I'm alive but tell me am I free? / I got eyes but tell me can I see? … It shouldn't be hard to believe / Shouldn't be this difficult to breathe / The sky is falling and no one knows." Similarly, "Am I Ever Gonna Find Out?" concerns the frustration of never knowing all the answers in this life, particularly whether or not we're making the right day-to-day decisions: "Patience can wait for now / I think I've waited for too long / You always gave a choice and the right to be wrong / All my life has been slipping through your hands." But hope still is available through humility, acceptance, and surrender. The opening lines of "Spin" are very indicative of this desire for God to change our hearts: "I'd rather chase your shadow all my life than be afraid of my own / I'd rather be with you … Everything I know has let me down, so I will just let go / Let you turn me inside out." Both "Out of Breath" and the title track are songs of perseverance and hope (Philippians 3:12-14; 2 Timothy 4:7), while "Take Me Away" presents the most worshipful lyrics on the album: "This time all I want is you / There is no one else who can take your place / This time you burned me with your eyes / You see past all the lies / You take it all away / I've seen it all and it's never enough / It keeps leaving me needing you."
Many critics readily dismiss Lifehouse as just another post-grunge band, albeit a really good one. Most people embrace their music as pleasant and uplifting rock, and others have avoided placing Jason's lyrics in a box, explaining them as "metaphysical." Meanwhile, many Christians have recognized Lifehouse's words for what they are. In regard to his songwriting, Jason says "I just found a niche of writing, where I can take something from my own perspective and just give it to a broad audience, where they can get something completely different out of it. And that's the beauty of music. It goes beyond lyrics and sounds. It's a universal language people can relate to their own lives." Why do I like Lifehouse so much? At the very least, this is a Christian band being heard by millions – right now, their impact is surpassed only by P.O.D. I'd like to believe they're planting seeds of faith within listeners that might make the Gospel more readily acceptable to them in time. Lifehouse's songs are about everyday life from a Christian's point of view, which not only explains the band's popularity, but also why they're one of the most important roaring lambs of the Christian faith today.