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Sounds like … catchy melodies unite guitar rock and Euro dance-pop to recall bands such as INXS, Duran Duran, and Savage GardenAt a Glance … the Newsboys return to all the elements that made them such a favorite through the '90s — the very reason fans will love Thrive.
Not many Christian artists can claim a fourteen year career, and it's hard to believe the Newsboys have been around that long. But, truth be told, it's frontman Peter Furler who's had the 14-year, 9-album career. The first three punk/new-wave albums hardly seem like the same band, and I think most appropriately look at 1992's Not Ashamed album as the launch pad for the band we know today as the Newsboys. It was that album that first featured the pairing of Peter with producer Steve Taylor (also a legendary Christian artist, songwriter, and the founder of Squint Entertainment), giving the Newsboys more of a Euro-dance-rock sound that was matched by extremely clever and satirical lyrics. It was the successful 1994 follow-up album, Going Public, that showcased the band we know today taking shape — introducing guitarist Jody Davis, percussionist Duncan Phillips, and keyboardist Jeff Frankenstein to the band. By 1996, the Newsboys had made bassist Phil Joel a part of the band, released the hit album Take Me to Your Leader, and firmly established themselves as one of Christian music's most successful acts. After two more studio albums, a greatest-hits collection, and an endless number of mind-blowing concerts (not to mention solo albums from Phil and Jody), the Newsboys are poised to thrill audiences yet again with their latest project, Thrive.
To call them pop would mean ignoring their modern guitar rock sound and sophisticated Euro-pop programming, and yet their penchant for catchy melodic hooks keeps hard-rock purists from fully embracing them. They're one of those rare bands that falls somewhere in the middle and attracts a wider audience for it, in the same way that bands such as INXS and U2 have done. Though they've altered their sound just enough from album to album to give each their own flavor, the Newsboys have remained remarkably consistent over the years. However, fans were not as quick to warm up to the retro sounds of their neo-disco project, 1999's Love Liberty Disco. The Newsboys undoubtedly recognized this, since Thrive is essentially a return to formula. I'd describe it as somewhere in between the guitar rock of Take Me to Your Leader and the modern pop of Step Up to the Microphone. Comparisons to Take Me to Your Leader extend to the production crew involved, since this is the first album co-produced by Steve Taylor since that release (Peter produced the last two albums himself). Additionally, acclaimed mix-specialist Thom Lord-Alge (Dave Matthews Band, INXS, Collective Soul) also returns for the first time since Take Me to Your Leader to give it that slightly more polished and professional finish.
When you put all those ingredients together, you can't help but achieve greatness. Peter's melodies shine like always, especially on the extremely catchy "Million Pieces" (about laying all our burdens before the Lord and the sense of freedom that follows), the title track (a prayer for God's direct presence in our lives), and the first hit single, "It Is You," a deceptively simple worship song that features some wonderfully flowing lyrics and excellent production. The rest of the band joins Peter to record some of their most rocking material since "Woo Hoo" and the Take Me to Your Leader album. Particularly impressive is the gritty classic-rock sound of "Giving it Over," which sounds like something the Rolling Stones or T-Rex ("Bang a Gong") would have recorded back in the late '60s or early '70s. There's also "John Woo," which may be the band's most progressive and experimental song to date, blending modern rock with techno, industrial, and an unusual-yet-catchy melody.
Yet, despite the Newsboys' return to their beloved sound, I think it's Steve Taylor's contributions as co-songwriter that make some of these songs the band's best work in years. Though his lyrics often have been misinterpreted over the years, Steve's got a gift for writing words that make Christianity relevant to the world - blending sincere faith and timeless truths with satire, wit, and pop-culture references. The last couple of Newsboys albums have been lacking this very quality, one which made so many of their past hits so much fun. I don't want to deprive listeners of the fun in absorbing all the lyrics on Thrive (and my brain is still digesting some of the songs), but there's plenty to chew on in songs such as "Cornelius," "John Woo," and "Fad of the Land." The latter two tracks in particular sound like classic Steve Taylor from the early '90s, similar to stuff from his Squint album or his stint with the band Chagall Guevara. Stop teasing us, Steve! We need a new album from you!
As good as Thrive is, there are signs that the Newsboys are beginning to recycle themselves. In a few instances, they use the exact same phrases from past hits. For example, "Giving It Over" includes the line "Back to the first love I ever knew," just like their hit song "Joy." You'll swear you were listening to the band's hit "Reality" when you listen to "Rescue," which also bears a strong resemblance to '80s dance-pop sensation Erasure covering '70s dance-pop sensation Abba. Perhaps the most obvious example is "Live in Stereo," which has a similar whistling part to their hit "Breakfast," and also has the exact shuffle-rock feel as this album's "Cornelius." Play the first 20 seconds of each back to back and they're almost interchangeable.
Would the Newsboys be better off with more adventurous material such as "John Woo?" Somehow I doubt it, because most would probably find it too experimental. Despite not breaking any new ground, the Newsboys sound better than ever on this disc. Their return to familiar territory may cause them to repeat themselves a bit, but they ultimately succeed in endearing themselves to their fans more — a smart move considering the reaction to Love Liberty Disco. If the music's going to stay as good, cerebral, and fun as this, then may the Newsboys continue to thrive for at least another 14 years.