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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Newsboys -- Take Me to Your Leader

 photo 220px-Newsboys_-_Take_Me_to_Your_Leader_zpsuunfuynn.jpg

Here's an untold 1999 story (If you just want my opinion of Take Me to Your Leader, skip ahead).
First week of August, late at night, I am lying on a grungy old mattress, high up in Kirby Smith dormitory. I am 17 years old, and I am terrified. This has been the most memorable year of my life, but things have suddenly taken a dark turn. I was selected by my high school to attend Louisiana Boys State, where soon-to-be high school seniors are put up in an LSU dorm for 8 days and nights to, theoretically, learn about how government works by creating a governing body among themselves. However, this creates an unintended consequence. Any fairly conscious person who has been alive for a decent amount of time knows that all politicians are sociopaths.
For eight days, I got locked in a nearly condemned dorm with 300 budding sociopaths.
I'm not saying every single kid selected to attend 1999 Boys State was a sociopath. I and like five other people weren't sociopaths. So not every kid.
If I could distill my experience into five words, it would be: death threats and rape jokes. My roommate, to this day one of the most psychotic individuals I have had the displeasure of meeting, threatened to kill me in my sleep every night, and that after I was gone, he would get my address from the floor ledger, drive to my parents' house, and rape my mother and kill my father. Sometimes, for no reason other than because it was his foul nature, he would block the door when I would try to leave, and ask me if I wanted to fight. He was the worst. Boys State was the worst.
One night, after the usual "kill you/rape your mother" diatribe he gave from the bed four feet from mine, he went off on a rant about killing every gay person in the world, then something about how if he woke up and I was in the bed with him(in his dreams!) he would kill me, and then some weird aside about how he thought the tall tree beneath our window was scary-looking (I knew very well what that tree looked like, as I often fantasized of leaping to it from the window, climbing down, and escaping). Then, without warning, he began to snore loudly.
I dug into my backpack, not knowing why. I was using an old one from a few years back, and I decided to dig into a pocket I hadn't recently packed anything into. Lo and behold, what was in there but my old Walkman, headphones connected, batteries still good. Only one question remained: was there a cassette inside? I pressed play with a wild hope of spiritual escape. Suddenly, the first notes of Newsboys Take Me to Your Leader popped and crackled in my ears.
In the 90's, we had these things called "local radio stations." The closest Christian one, 92.7 The Bridge (before K-Love, there were local Christian stations!), often played a full album by a selected artist, every Friday night. One week in 1996, they played Newsboys freshly released Take Me to Your Leader, and I popped a blank cassette in my stereo and recorded it. I really enjoyed that album. I loved to listen to it when I played Mega Man X on my Super Nintendo, or on the bus on the way home.  However, post-ninth grade me moved me away from Christian tunes. By 1999, my favorite bands were Deftones, Portishead, The Dismemberment Plan. It's not that I actively shunned Christian music. That year I jammed out to a lot of Caedmon's call, and even more U2, if you want to call them "Christian Music." I just forgot about Newsboys.
On that awful night, though, the moment I realized my old Take Me to Your Leader cassette was miraculously still around, in my old walkman, and now passing into my ears, I was filled with the greatest sense of peace and comfort. I fell asleep to that album every Boys State night, thereon, hiding my walkman from my dastardly wicked roommate by day so that he would not steal or destroy it. I also prayed every night that the batteries wouldn't die.
All of that to say, Take Me to Your Leader is an extremely memorable album for me, and this review might just be a little biased.
In the spirit of the old album reviews I used to read (I wrote one on there for this album back during the Clinton administration AND IT'S STILL THERE), this, and all of these Newsboys reviews will be broken up track-by-track.
1. "God Is Not a Secret" That wah-wah guitar-intro has to be one of the most recognizable in all of Christian rock. Yes, I said "rock," because, unlike most LP's by the band Newsboys, stylistically, Take Me to Your Leader is an alternative rock album. Not like hard-rock, and there are certainly some highly poppy moments, but the majority of this album, and definitely this song rocks decently hard. Also, with Steve Taylor and Peter Furler collaborating on the lyrics, you get the kind of bold, yet humorous lyrics today's barely-existent Christian music scene could only dream of:

You don't understand
This is not what you think it is
You don't get it, man
You want to boil it down to show biz
Your in-depth research shows:
Drop the God, emphasize the beat
I've heard that positive pop you dig--
I'd rather be buried in wet concrete

Also, in a shocking development for songs that could be heard on Christian radio before these mid-90's, the music doesn't suck. This "doesn't suck" movement was spear-headed by Take Me to Your Leader, Jars of Clay's self-titled album, Audio Adrenaline's Bloom, and DC Talk's Jesus Freak. These albums helped create an incredible environment for a mid-90's teenager who might want a little spiritual encouragement without having to listen to music that would clearly, never, ever be good enough to make it on a secular radio station. Non-Christians even bought these albums because THEY ACTUALLY SOUND GOOD.
2. "Take Me to Your Leader" The title-track shows off the album's more laid-back, oddball side. It also makes me nostalgic for the mid-90's again, when bands wrote songs about how being a Christian can actually BE FUN. Also fun: that flanger drum-break in the bridge. Also fun: Duke Nukem for Windows 95.
3. "Breathe" The more rocking sounds return in the crunchy intro to this song, which is about the unfortunate burden of living with other people. The prayer for spiritual renewal in the chorus is like a mantra, and contrasts pretty brilliantly with the loud atmospherics of the bridge. The bridges in this album are cool.
4. "Reality" Speaking of atmospherics and coolness, "Reality" reminds me of that desert planet circus from the 1989 Doctor Who episode "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy." The song features plenty of spacey guitar effects and evocative lyrics of someone who is second-guessing their decision to runaway from home to join the circus. As a side note, I find this song strangely comforting and relaxing.
5. "Breakfast" Take Me to Your Leader's pop-hit, still performed by the band today as they are frequently pelted by fans with breakfast cereal. This song was never my favorite, but it's catchy, and the whistling part is addictive.
6. "Let It Go" Another softer song, but good atmosphere, and I really enjoy the once-again mantra-like outro, this time featuring the title of the song repeated many, many times.
7. "Cup O' Tea" This is my jam, the most high-energy, aggressive song the Newsboys ever released, but it is also full of atmosphere, fleshing out Take Me to Your Leader's retro science-fiction feel. I remember seeing them play this song live around this time, and the raucous guitar-solo almost started a riot.
8. "It's All Who You Know" The album now slowly starts to build to something, as this song doesn't rock too much, yet continues TMTYL's musical and lyrical themes, and features a rhythm that affects a great sense of motion.
9. "Miracle Child" Probably the album's weakest song, with lead singer John James, in his only lead-performance of the entire album, providing the songs's only standout moment, a wordless melody in the bridge. And yet...the song serves it's function. It builds without payoff, and creates an odd feeling of uneasiness.
10. "Lost the Plot" This is the payoff. "Lost the Plot" is quite easily the heaviest song in the Newsboys catalogue (heavy and aggressive are not the same thing!), both musically and lyrically. It starts off rather apocalyptically, with a gentle, yet dark and downbeat guitar line, and the verse:

When you come back again
Would you bring me something from the fridge?
Heard a rumour that the end is near
But I just got comfortable here

There's also a line a little later that really creeped 14-year old me out, and gives me chills now, as I think about how creeped out it used to make me:

Out among the free-range sheep/ While the big birds sharpen their claws

At 17, with that creep sleeping five feet away from me, the line was just a little terrifying. "Lost the Plot" takes all of the themes and sounds from the rest of the album, and darkens them to epic proportions. The song builds up to a fiery finale that features Peter Furler coming as close to screaming on record as ever, as he details the horror of a completely faithless world, backed by a guitar line that sounds like Eric Clapton accidentally turned his amp past peaking and can't get it back down.
 11. "Breathe (Benediction)" After such a downbeat climax, it would be disingenuous to end the album on a happy, upbeat number. Aptly, "Breathe (Benediction)" is a subdued, yet hopeful reprise of Take Me to Your Leader's third track. As an album, Take Me to Your Leader is pretty marvelous. I know that sounds funny, but some albums aren't actually albums--they are just a collection of songs. Take Me to Your Leader is an album. It has an excellent, cohesive flow, builds to a huge climax that should act as a sad ending, and yet the band finds a way to end things optimistically, all in a way that feels earned.
Take Me to Your Leader isn't perfect. A couple of the songs, "Miracle Child" in particular, aren't the best way to spend three minutes. But overall, Take Me to Your Leader stands the test of time, 20 years old in just a handful of months, still a trippy escape and somber reality check all at once.
Good when you're 14, 18, or...34 :(

1996 Star Song Communications
1. God Is Not a Secret 3:09
2. Take Me to Your Leader 2:58
3. Breathe 3:15
4. Reality 3:08
5. Breakfast 3:40
6. Let It Go 3:38
7. Cup O' Tea 2:40
8. It's All Who You Know 3:11
9. Miracle Child 3:10
10. Lost the Plot 4:56
11. Breathe (Benediction) 3:15

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