Casting Crowns are one of those bands where you really love their ministry and what they doing in each of their albums, or you just want to change the radio station, or click to another song on your iTunes playlist whenever they are on. Regardless of your opinions on a band that is probably just as popular now as TobyMac or Chris Tomlin, Casting Crowns and their trademark CCM-style electric guitar driven ballads are a way to connect with those who listen, especially when their own focus is for the church- youth groups and young adults in particular. With each of the members of the band only in part-time ministry (they minister at their home churches from Sunday til Tuesday, and then tour for the rest of the week), this seven-piece band, however you view them, have "stats" that speak for themselves, with hit songs like "Lifesong", "Courageous", "Until the Whole World Hears", "Who am I" and "East to West", charting the radio stations and being a vessel and instrument for hope, encouragement and change in the lives of many who hear it. Their latest album Thrive releases Tuesday January 28th (but you can stream it here on iTunes First Play), and while they still have their trademark Casting Crowns CCM-piano/guitar driven sound, they have been able to infuse other styles into their 12 song album, from the banjo prominent title track, to the gang vocal and powerful electric guitar infused track "Love You With the Truth" and the piano only emotional heartbreaker "Broken Together".
As spoken by lead singer Mark Hall himself, "...The idea of THRIVE came out of our student ministry and what we've been teaching for years on what a believer looks like,” says Casting Crowns lead singer, Mark Hall. “This record and book is an effort to draw a picture of what a believer would look like if they dug into their roots and understood God and themselves more. We must first learn who God is and who we are. With that, half of our record is all about learning who God is and who you are. The other half is about how that works out. How are you going to get out there and let God live His life through you?..." With their songs often the most confronting yet comforting that I have come across in both the CCM and the alternative Christian music industry (with songs like "Slow Fade", "If We are the Body" and "Stained Glass Masquerade"), Mark and the rest of the band continue to do the same on this gem of an album. Now many may not agree with my assessment, and that"s cool, and many of you know that as a lover of CCM, I am mostly easily pleased when it comes to Christian music, at least within the CCM realm. Nevertheless, what Mark Hall and the rest of the band remind us through this album is the simple words of "roots" and "reach", and how a believer in Christ ought to have both these elements if they ought to thrive in daily life. Their most personal and musically diverse album to date, this is a great album to any CCM enthusiast, or anyone who wants to try this album out to see if Casting Crowns has broken out of their "safe" and "predictable" CCM mould (which I declare "yes" to, even if the style change is ever so slight).
Starting off the album with banjos, electric guitars and a guest vocal that creates a "wooahhh" sound that penetrates the ears of listeners in a good way as they are drawn into the first track, "Thrive" invites us on a journey to do exactly that in our Christian daily walk- thrive. Encapsulating what the whole album is about within their first track, Casting Crowns place a country twist on a seriously themed melody, infusing together a light and fun atmosphere with hand claps and a southern gospel flavour, with a moment of realisation and clarity that our goal is "...just to know You and to make You known, we lift Your name on high, shine like the sun, make darkness run and hide, we know we were made for so much more than ordinary life, it's time for us to more than just survive, we are made to thrive..." Thriving in life ought to be our goal as Christians, and before someone says this is the prosperity doctrine, I reckon that the message Casting Crowns delivers, not just in this song but throughout the album in general, goes beyond money. To thrive in life is to thrive in financials, but also in our relationships with both God and our friends, and often with more importance placed on the relationships than the material wealth. Mark and the band remind us that as we delve in relationship with Christ, hopefully both "reach" and "roots" grow in a natural progression. Standing at 5 minutes, the longest track on the album, this song is equally as catchy as it is convicting. The heartfelt bridge of how as Christians we have "...joy unspeakable, faith unsinkable, love unstoppable, anything is possible..." is something we ought to hold on, in good times and bad. A great song to start the album, "Thrive" is a certain standout by Casting Crowns, and certain to be a personal favourite of mine in months and years to come.
"All You've Ever Wanted" is the first radio single from the band, which released in November of 2013. With the theme of the song speaking about how in circumstances of hurt and doubt, we can sometimes try to use our own human strength to try to get back to God, instead of just letting Him shower us with His mercy and love. The pivotal part of the verse where Mark exclaims that "...Lord, I know I let You down, but somehow, I will make You proud, I'll turn this sinking ship around, and make it back to You..." is something we all can relate to, trying with all of our might to turn the "ship" which is our lives back around, when all we are asked of is to "...stop living off of how I feel and start standing on Your truth revealed, Jesus is my strength, my shield, and He will never fail me..." A piano driven melody through and through, "All You've Ever Wanted" is a prayer of vulnerability of showing God where we're at, but also a declaration of certainty, knowing that all God wants of us is ourselves, as dirty and ragged as they are. Musically like any other CCM melody, this song can be forgettable for those who may not think that highly of the band for whatever reason, but for those who are able to just listen (either purposely or by accident), I'm sure they (as I have) will be encouraged, and free in the fact that we don't need to clean up our acts before we stand close to God. "Just Be Held" carries on from this, in theme and in musical backdrop, as the piano hook that starts off the melody will hopefully draw in the most uninterested of listeners. The opening lines of the song paints a picture of striving, holding things all together, and trying to keep things strong for the people around us, when we are really floundering about. Just as comforting as the song preceding it, "Just Be Held" alludes to the theme of rest and being comfortable in the arms of Jesus, and utilises the strength of Mark Hall's vocals to be one of the song's greatest assets. The realisation of how "...when you're on your knees and answers seem so far away, You're not alone, stop holding on and just be held..." can be just as life-changing as knowing that God's love for us is not dependant on how well we present ourselves to others. These two songs give us daily reminders that our authenticity and our vulnerability are not a sign of weakness or shame, but rather welcomed by God as we present our real selves to the one who knows and loves us the most, even more than we'll ever know or comprehend. Well done Mark and the team for some of my favourite melodies from Thrive.
The rest of the album is a perfect snapshot of Casting Crowns and what they can do, and can also be a great snapshot of all the musical genres and backdrops they have placed their album as a whole. "Love You With the Truth" is a great anthem of declaration with powerful electric guitars, yet the subject matter of loving someone with the truth can be hard to stomach or even think about. Sharing the gospel with non-Christian friends has always been pivotal for us Christians to undertake, and this song takes that journey and reminds us that sometimes we have to speak the truth of sin, hell and separation from God, if we really love our friend and long for them to come to Christ. As said by Mark, "...people say, "I want to share the gospel, but I don't want to ruin my friendship." What you are really saying is I love my friendship more than I love my friend. It's tough, but it's truth..." The rockiest song on the album, "Love You With the Truth" can be a bitter pill to swallow as we ask ourselves- are we truly valuing our friend, or the friendship? "Dream For You" is another mind-expander as we witness some of the kids from the church Mark Hall attends in the background as backing vocals. The theme of the melody of how God's got a dream for us, and that we're equally as special and have something to give, is a revolutionary and eye-opening thing, especially for teenagers. The stories of how Moses and Joseph were granted with big dreams by the Lord, even if they weren't measuring up to much previously, is one way that God can make the lowest of lows fulfil the biggest of dreams and tasks in God's name. God has dreams for us, and as we realise that "...I'm stronger than you think I am, I'll take you farther than you think you can, You sing and call me Great I Am so take your stand...", what we can accomplish will be far greater than anything we can even know or comprehend.
"Waiting on the Night to Fall" is a warning for each of us to be wary about the "old man", personified in this song as we see the metaphor of describing the devil, and how "...while you slumber, he's gonna come and take it all, he's waiting on the night to fall..."; and though the last song on the album and one that uses not that much instruments (just Mark's voice, a piano and some drums), the song still packs in enough message and things to think about to warrant a listen. Also delving into the theme of unsung heroes in everyday life ("Heroes", which somehow reminds me of "Courageous" every time I hear it, both the song and the movie), singing from the persona of Jesus as He calls us all to follow Him ("Follow Me", an acoustically driven melody sung beautifully by Megan Garrett on lead vocals), as well as again speaking about the topic of families and broken homes and how "...we're trapped in our own worlds and our own wars, with our cell phones and our closed doors, God, only You can save our family..." ("House of Their Dreams"), Casting Crowns have a great ability to use everyday life circumstances and weave together a song that boasts vulnerability and relateability as the band unveil some of the most honest and best crafted melodies (both lyrically and musically) of their whole career.
The piano only "Broken Together" and the song-based-on-Peter "This is Now" are two of my personal highlights. With just the piano, Mark vulnerably opens up about his thoughts on marriage and what it means to be broken together, knowing that within a relationship, there are times of ups and downs, and that sometimes, we have to love the other person for who they are, not for who we want them to be. With the lyrics accentuated because of the lack in instruments, the powerful line of how "...maybe you and I were never meant to be complete, could we just be broken together..." is one that has impacted my life, and has shown me that perfection lies in the arms of Christ, and that admitting that we are broken is a scary, yet ultimately freeing thing we all need to do and say. With the idea behind the song being whether we can "...lay down who you thought I was and love the me that is? Can we take this from where we are now and realize that I can't be that person..."; "Broken Together", despite its tough subject, is perhaps the strongest delivered melody on the album. "This is Now", the latest single from the band, touches on the subject of falling away from Christ during hard times, and while the song was based on Peter and how he denied Jesus three times before the rooster crows, the song can be just as applicable to anyone who feels like they're going through a hard time. With a steady piano introduction, Mark unveils the doubts that Peter had, repeating the phrase "that was then and this is now", showcasing the change in character, and the longing for Peter to go back to fervently loving Christ before the moment of doubt and denial. With this song relating to individuals whose family or friends have strayed away from the Lord, "This is Now" is a constant reminder that even in times of trials, God can come to us as we realise and know that "...my child, I bore your cross, I wore your crown, when you couldn't come to me, my love came down..." Just as vulnerable as "Broken Together", Casting Crowns have given us this song that's certain to be the catalyst of healing and hope for millions of people in the months and years ahead!
Overall: Love them or hate them, Casting Crowns has a great ministry, and their songs are equally as powerful and matter as much as any other artist. Despite their sometimes formulaic song structure and lyrical themes, this album Thrive is possibly my second favourite album by them (The Altar and the Door is my all-time favourite, and possibly the most overlooked album of their whole career). Released with a theme of us understanding who God is (roots), coupled with the call for us to carry out God's work amongst the nations (reach), Mark says it best when he reminds us that surviving "...is not the life that God designed for us to live. That's not saying that you're not going to have problems. None of the New Testament people had it easy. They all had troubles, some even at the expense of their lives...hard times are going to come, but God didn't put you here just so you could survive through hard times. He put you here to thrive, to dig in and to reach out...[Thrive draws] a picture of what a believer, a follower of Jesus, would look like if they dug into their roots and understood God and themselves more, ...[letting] God give them chances to be a Christian..." A great way to start off 2014 with an album that's certainly going to be in my top 20 albums by year's end, Casting Crowns supporters and lovers of CCM are certain to enjoy this album and put it on their must-buy list. Well done guys for such a vulnerable album, and in my opinion, the best album to be released in January 2014 so far.