Sounds like … thoughtful and challenging contemporary folk-pop along the lines of Bebo Norman, Shane Barnard, and Caedmon's CallAt a Glance … quite possibly Justin's best album to date, featuring gutsy songwriting that challenges both Christians and non-believers.
With the popularity of Christian folk music these days, you'd think Justin McRoberts would be more recognized. The twenty-something songwriter, who became a Christian in his late teens and served as a Young Life staff leader in California, has released a new album every year since his start in 1999. He was warmly received when he opened for Caedmon's Call the year after his debut released. Justin's original label, Five Minute Walk Records, has been struggling lately, and Five Iron Frenzy is more or less the only artist on their roster. Undaunted as an independent artist (distributed through Grassroots Music), Justin has released two albums since leaving Five Minute Walk, an untitled acoustic worship EP and Trust, which features some of Justin's most passionate songwriting to date.
It's easy to compare Justin McRoberts to his Christian folk contemporaries. He's a bit more angst-filled than Bebo Norman, typically less worshipful than Shane Barnard, and a lot like Derek Webb without Caedmon's Call to back him. Justin's music is truly acoustic, often times comprised only of his vocals and guitar. It's remarkable that he's managed to sound different on every recording he's made, especially since he's used the same producer on each (Masaki, who's produced all of Five Iron's albums). My favorite of his albums was his first, Reason for Living, which featured an eclectic blend of folk, pop, and rock that reflected Justin's growth as a Christian. For his sophomore release, Father, Justin and Masaki created a fine folk album that paid tribute to Justin's dad, who lost his battle with depression by committing suicide. The album poignantly dealt with the struggles with which we wrestle daily, but the sometimes-somber words weighed down the music, resulting in an album that was a little too homogenous.
Trust blends the best of both worlds, offering songs that are romantic, haunting, passionate, and challenging. Justin's goal was to flash back to his life before coming to Christ, portraying the mindset of the unchurched and disinterested. He succeeds spectacularly in empathizing with those without faith or hope, while inspiring Christians to have compassion and understanding. The opening cut, "Dangerous," is a classic pop-rocker that focuses on a non-beliver's reaction to unconditional love from friends and God: "I know what you're doing and what happens from now on / You'll make me a project, I won't change and you'll be gone / You can call it fear and insecurity / I'm just trying to leave you before you leave me." If you think that's tough, listen to "They Care," which asks believers to examine their motivations for attending church and serving as a Christian leader. There's also "You Wouldn't Know," my favorite track musically, which recalls the folk two-step of The Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" or Caedmon's Call's "Ballad of San Francisco." Justin's music and melodies rarely have sounded so vibrant, but the song is far more indicting than it seems, describing how evangelism can become an agenda instead of a relationship: "You wouldn't know, you never stopped your talking / I never got a word in edgewise to tell you I believed it / No, enchanted by your arguments, the sound of your own voice."
Such is the unifying theme of Trust, but rest assured it's not all a condemnation of the church. The subtext of the album also faults the unwillingness of unbelievers to trust others, much less the concept of an ever-present and loving God. "Anything to You" is the all-too-common mindset of a skeptic who can't accept a loving God in a hurting world. The romantic "Alone Together" tells of two lonely kindred spirits opening up to each other, and "Trust You" works as a passionate simple first prayer from a non-believer. The poignant "Love as Love" is also a prayer, though it also can be interpreted as a cry for help from a loved one. In either case, it's a plea to recognize love for what it is. Many other songs wrestle with common struggles all of us face: pessimism ("Enemy"), self-image ("Beautiful Once"), and lust ("She").
The lyrical content is the most powerful element of Trust, but don't quickly dismiss the musical components. As on his previous efforts, Justin displays a remarkably strong voice to carry his songs. Check out "Love," which, like Caedmon's Call's "Love Is Different," explains the work and effort needed to cultivate a relationship. Justin takes his powerful tenor voice to new levels of passion that honestly rival Bono (U2). The same is true of the spirited "Beautiful Once" and the darkly hued "She." Masaki and Justin do a fine job of varying the production, but I believe the overall effect succeeds this time because of Justin's songwriting, which is his way of keeping a prayer journal. Each song has its own flavor, and many of the songs feature some of Justin's most memorable melodies to date. Few Christian albums have so accurately and honestly handled the struggle of loneliness and coming to faith. If you're into Christian folk, Trust is mandatory listening.