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The Face of Love

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2006 1 Apr
The Face of Love
Sounds like … the melodic modern rock of Switchfoot, U2, Mae, downhere, Coldplay, Kevin Max, and Luna HaloAt a glance … The Face of Love represents a new level of maturity to Sanctus Real's songwriting and rock style, though the songs don't quite live up to the hooks and energy of the band's previous effortsTrack Listing I'm Not Alright Eloquent Fly The Face of Love Don't Give Up We're Trying Thank You Magnetic Possibilities Where We Belong Benjamin

With a heart balloon on the cover and a title like The Face of Love, some fans might fear Sanctus Real has gone soft. Though some of the band members have begun to experience marriage and parenthood in recent years, they remain entrenched in rock without resorting to the overly sentimental. However, it's been a trying year for Sanctus Real, and not just with the departure of their original bass player Steve Goodrum (replaced by Dan Gartley). On the day he became a new dad, drummer Mark Graalman learned his own father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer; he died just two months later. Around the same time, singer Matt Hammitt's grandmother also took a turn for the worse and ended up in hospice care before passing.

All this right when it was time to ride the wave of success from 2004's Fight the Tide, which (deservedly) won the 2005 GMA Award for Modern Rock Album of the Year. The grief and uncertainty had squelched the band's creativity and passion. But producer Chris Stevens (Shawn McDonald, tobyMac) recognized this as an opportunity, challenging Sanctus Real to instead let their emotions fuel their music. Those efforts yielded what's being described as the band's most personal effort to date.

Surprisingly, this is not the album you'd expect in response to two funerals, preoccupied with the shortness of our days and the hope of life eternal. Only the powerful closer "Benjamin," written for Graalman's newborn son, touches on the recent losses: "Children born while fathers die/It's that circle of life that we all live in time … He gives and He takes, and it makes us stronger." It is indeed an album of brokenness, searching for answers and comfort from God, but more from the angle of grace and love. Taking cue from the mood swings of the Psalms, The Face of Love is essentially Sanctus Real's blues album.

Which is not to suggest that the album is a dramatic musical departure. While early buzz suggested a radical stylistic reinvention, this is very much the same melodic rock band—Hammitt's remarkable lead vocal (like a younger, raspier Bono), Gaalman's sharp drumming, and Chris Rohman's robust guitar work are all here. "Don't Give Up" in particular sounds like another rocker off Fight the Tide, and some will call the title track derivative of U2's "Beautiful Day" (popularized on Christian radio by Sanctus Real) or Coldplay's "Speed of Sound." But props to the band for occasionally detouring from their familiar in-your-face approach, sometimes scaling down or else backing many of these new songs with ambient effects that provide a floating alt-pop quality to "Benjamin" and much of "Magnetic." The album also kicks off rather unconventionally with the slower powerhouse single "I'm Not Alright," comfortably resting somewhere between Switchfoot's "Meant to Live" and Coldplay's "Fix You."

Based on the songwriting, this is Sanctus Real's most mature effort to date, and it works especially well as a simple outline of the Good News. "I'm Not Alright" declares our need for grace, and "Eloquent" confesses our sinful shortcomings: "I'm as eloquent as an elephant/I'm as headstrong as the mighty King Kong." The hope of a fresh start is suggested in "Fly," and the title track beautifully illustrates that while we don't initially know Christ's face, his features become more recognizable to us every passing year. "We're Trying" sounds influenced by the book of Romans in its acceptance of all this: "Everyone wants reality, so here it is/I believe that nobody is good/We are liars and thieves, we're destroying the peace/But we're trying." The simple response to God's grace then is gratitude ("Thank You") and loving others in the same way ("Where We Belong").

Though it all sounds great, there's ultimately something a little lacking. Say It Loud was more hook-filled, Fight the Tide more punchy and exciting, but The Face of Love is more varied and thoughtful. Ironically, while Fight the Tide almost became monotonous in its energetic rock revelry, the pendulum swings almost too far the other way this time. Considering where Sanctus Real was at when they made it, the lack of energy is understandable. Nevertheless, many of these songs also lack distinction, especially compared to the band's similar-but-better previous output. So while there is indeed growth here, it doesn't necessarily make The Face of Love a step forward in excellence compared to the band's two previous efforts. Sanctus Real may yet release their rock masterpiece if they can zero in on the strengths of all three albums—catchiness, verve, and thoughtfulness.

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