- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
Part two of the dc Talk solo album experiment comes from Kevin Max, the man with the soaring tenor voice that sometimes warbles as well as a love for poetry and art rock. Kevin is unquestionably the most enigmatic member of dc Talk, and he's left many people scratching their head at some of the public statements he's made or the behavior he's exhibited on stage—which makes his new solo debut all the more auto-biographical. Through the lyrical content and the general artistic scope of the album, Stereotype Be challenges Christians and non-Christians to step outside their comfort zone and examine the relevance of faith and truth in their daily living.
As you might have picked up from hearing past dc Talk albums, Kevin can be very poetic—and the results are sometimes frustrating but often spectacular. Unlike a lot of Christian music, this isn't an album that's easily figured out from casual listening, and I imagine a lot of listeners will still be scratching their head wondering if this is a "Christian" album. The answer is definitely yes, but you need to explore the album to understand it. It's a recording that asks questions about society and our common struggles in this "Existence," and then attempts to answer those questions by taking comfort that we can simply "Be" what God has created us to be. Several of the other songs relate to this album theme—the desire to be accepted ("I Don't Belong"), the need to be loved ("Dead End Moon"), and the futile pursuit of fame and glamour ("Deconstructing Venus"). The album is similar in message to the book of Ecclesiastes, looking for fulfillment in all the wrong places and eventually finding it in the perfect totality of God. Heady stuff, but it can be quite rewarding after repeated listens.
While you're trying to grasp the meaning behind the songs, what really stands out when listening to Stereotype Be is the sound. Kevin Max's taste leans towards sophisticated European pop, and the album soaks in it with the help of some talented musicians from outside the usual Christian studio musician circles. The album was co-produced by the legendary Adrian Belew, an extremely gifted guitarist who was in the classic art rock band King Crimson and played guitar on some of David Bowie's early works. Adrian also produced "Liquid" and "Flood" for Jars of Clay once upon a time. Joining Adrian is fellow King Crimson alumni Tony Levin, an excellent bass player who's played on just about every Peter Gabriel album (and my oh my, if the opening bass riff to "Be" doesn't sound a lot like Gabriel's "Don't Give Up"). Additional musicians include guitarist William Owsley (who has his own band and has played with Amy Grant), drummer Matt Chamberlain (Tori Amos), and multi-instrumentalist John Painter (dc Talk and Fleming & John). The music is extremely well performed, though I found myself expecting more considering the talent involved—for example, there are some good guitar solos but there could have been more.
Kevin may draw from a lot of progressive pop influences, but unfortunately he wears those influences a little too obviously on his sleeve. "Dead End Moon" bears a strong resemblance to Sting's "Desert Rose," and "Shaping Space" sounds like a cross between Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles and Queen (even borrowing the phrase "we're the princes of the universe" from Queen's back catalog). Likewise, the other songs recall the likes of U2's Bono, David Bowie, John Lennon, and Peter Gabriel. I love the sound of all those artists, but Kevin never quite crafts these influences into something uniquely his own. Where Delirious was able to adapt the U2 and Radiohead sound to their own style, Kevin sounds a bit like a cover band running through his favorite artists. However, as a friend of mine rightly pointed out, few people can convincingly cover so many accomplished artists so well, which is a testament to Kevin Max's diverse songwriting and skills as a vocalist and producer.
Ultimately, I think Stereotype Be is a terrific album—I'm merely splitting hairs between what makes it really good and what could have made it a masterpiece. Perhaps next time Kevin will focus on finding his own musical style, but for now we have an extremely interesting and artsy solo debut that has a great chance of finding a mainstream audience. Its spirituality is subtle but present, and though it's not always original sounding, it's different enough from everything else presently out there in the Christian market to grab attention. I don't know if Kevin Max's debut pushes musical boundaries in general, but it definitely lays down the gauntlet for others to be creative Christian artists.