All I have to say is I sure am glad they're still making Newsboys records.
And by that I mean I am glad Peter Furler is still making music.
Whereas Furler's first solo effort, 2011's On Fire was fully a dance-pop record with tinges of rock thrown in, his current album Sun and Shield is a rock-pop record with some hints of the previous album's dance tunes thrown in. Dance and rock were always the ever-shifting yin and yang around which Newsboys pop music was based. At their best they always merged the two so that you would not be able to say one way or the other whether their songs were rock or dance or pop—they had somehow merged them all into their own unique sound (follow this link to hear some examples of this). Furler's current album, which released on March 11, while never quite reaching the height of Newsboys in their prime, is still packed with compelling musical ideas and the clever lyrics (mostly co-written with Steve Taylor) he has come to be known by.
Two surprises on the album come from a close reading of the liner notes. The first is that there is no record label attached to this release, which means Furler has gone independent and is taking on the task of touring and promoting his music entirely by himself and his team. As someone who has been so central a fixture in the CCM world for more than a couple of decades now I find this a fascinating decision, the story of which I would love to hear. The second surprise is that even though this is basically a solo record, Furler has chosen to rebrand himself as "Peter Furler Band", inviting Dave Ghazarian (formerly of Superchick) on guitar/bass, and Jeff Irizarry on drums. However, what is most interesting is they apparently did not record a single track on the album, but instead left the instrumentation to what is currently Steve Taylor's studio and touring band for his upcoming record —John Mark Painter, Jimmy Abegg, and Steve Taylor—along with a few other high profile guests—Blair Masters (a renowned Nashville composer and session musician who has played/arranged on previous Newsboys records), Phil Joel, Jeff Frankenstein (that is, a former and a current Newsboy), and then finally Mylon LeFevre (an 80's Christian rock star and Furler's father-in-law1). So I am not sure if the whole "band" moniker came after recording had wrapped, but the actual band consists of some legendary CCM/Nashville players who seem to have a lot of musical synergy going on at the moment.
The album opens with the title track "Sun and Shield", which is mostly middle of the road worship-tinged rock (if there is such a genre), but I think it is worth noting that I have found the song stuck in my head several times this past week (a couple of times it was the tune running over in my mind when I woke up in the morning). But from there the album goes to "So High", which is reminiscent of Newsboys' sound, containing elements of disco, Aussie-rock, and funk. Starting with this song onward the expectation for the rest of the album is set, both musically and lyrically: it is apparent Furler and company feel no pressure to stick with one musical sound or lyrical theme, and in that sense Sun and Shield follows a more classic album form2. That is, it contains 10 songs of diverse sounds and subjects all presented in a brisk 35 minutes3 rather than a 73 minute epic concept album.
Lyrically there are out and out worship songs on the record (especially "Yeshua" the powerful slow-burner which is congregation ready), there are Biblically themed songs (the title track, "Overcomer", and "It's Alright (for Lazarus)", "The High Road") and there are satiric/critical songs aimed at the Church and at culture (notably "Dare I Say", which according to some reputable source [namely Furler's press contact] is a bit of an "up yours" to Satan 4). At place here are the trademark Taylor/Furler lines, which contain tight rhymes and clever wordplay often with double meanings as in "So High": "Chasing everything that you can be/Is gonna kill you eventually/And when you bank on security/it comes/it goes/then the account is closed". Also of note lyrically is "Shame" perhaps one of Furler/Taylor's most ambivalent and open-ended songs, one that on the surface might be perceived as negative and failing to refer to the place of God's grace in overcoming our sin—a criticism that might hold were the song not juxtaposed with other songs that so evidently speak of the work of God through Jesus5. Musically, there are a number of excellent hooks which I think will grow better with age. To me, the sound on Sun and Shield represents a more mature, relaxed, and assured Peter Furler, a songwriter, musician, and performer who no longer feels the pressure to crank out youth groupy CCM hits, but who still longs to express his faith through music and who will always be chasing after another catchy hook. Oddly, the album plays best when Furler allows the production to be either simple and sparse (as on "Yeshua" and "It's Alright") or quirky and bombastic6 (as on "Dare I Say" and "Right Wrong Girl"). Also, it is worth noting just how great Furler's and Phil Joel's voices sound together; is there anybody who compliments Furler's voice better? Actually it was quite a relief to see him pop up in various places on this album (I'm assuming his bass work is present somewhere in there as well.
All that is to say, even though this album is somewhat understated and is not striving for epic stadium rock status, it furthers the argument for placing Furler with the all-time greats of pop and rock music. At this point he is pretty deep in his career and Sun and Shield stands as a testament to his abilities and intentions as an artist when he could so obviously just coast into Newsboys nostalgia tours or fade away and live off of his royalty checks the rest of his life. It will be interesting to hear what his band comes up with on the new Steve Taylor record coming out later this spring. My guess is they were willing to push themselves even more both lyrically and musically. Many of us longtime Steve Taylor fans are eagerly anticipating that release with baited breath. For now though we have in our possession a great record from his writing partner, with Peter Furler's Sun and Shield7.
You can listen to clips and view lyrics from the new album at Furler's website:http://www.peterfurler.com/music
Peter Furler Band's Sun and Shield can be order from his website directly or purchased on Amazon or itunes:
|In my home we had the cassette of this album.|
I don't think I ever actually listened to it.
1 When I was a kid the only thing I knew about Mylon LeFevre was from the cover of the album pictured to the right. Even then I knew this band represented some kind of 80's awesomeness.↩
|Mylon LeFevre and Broken Heart.|
Who wouldn't want to be like these guys?
2 Think of the collection of songs on The Beatles' Revolver. The sound of the songs jumps around quite drastically and yet somehow they all fit together. The diversity of songs is not jarring but complimentary; they are cohesively diverse.↩
3 I have always been fascinated with short albums that leave the listener wanting more. Furler has done this throughout his career, releasing numerous albums of only 10 songs and that rarely exceed 40 minutes in length. To me his career is a study in conscious self-limitation. There is certainly something to be emulated here.↩
4 Update: Originally in the body of the text I had included my own interpretation of "Dare I Say", which I said could be read as "a letter to either the way the press has treated Furler during his post-Newsboys days or as a letter to his former but still active bandmates". In this footnote I then said "Go ahead. Listen to the song and interpret the lyrics that way. I could be completely wrong but it sure makes for a fascinating interpretation" It turns out I was wrong. A fan of Furler's and his own press representative contacted me and told me it was written about Satan. Still, my interpretation is more fun, don't you think? ↩
5 In a recent interview with CCM magazine Furler explained his being more comfortable now with putting out ambiguous lyrics that cause the listener to mine meaning from repeat listens.↩
6 I attribute a lot of this quirkiness to John Mark Painter, who has remained mostly a mystery to me throughout his career. Painter who formed one half of the brilliant but short-lived (and potentially resurrected[?]) band Fleming and John with his with Fleming McWilliams, is a mult-instrumentalist and always manages to find the most unique sounds in his recordings. See Steve Taylor's recording of "Shortstop" for evidence.↩
7 I will tack on one final footnote to express a disappointment. I didn't actually like the cover art or liner note design. The picture on the cover is fine as far as it goes, but I've never been one for the obvious "picture of the band" approach. It would have been better served on the back of the album. On the front I would have much rather seen on of Furler's works of art. It would have made the album feel more like a work of art itself.↩