Needtobreathe hits reset button on “Wasteland”

Long live the heart, long live the soul, that knows what it wants. The piece you can find, that part is the whole, and it never lets go.

This is the statement the Rinehart Brothers (Bear and Bo) pose on “The Heart,” the leadoff single of their fifth studio album, Rivers in the Wasteland.

Lord knows they’ve been through plenty since the release of The Reckoning in 2011, a critical and commercial smash. But success is sometimes just as hard to handle as failure, and in the aftermath Needtobreathe nearly dissolved. Drummer and founding member Joe Stillwell quit the band. Bo and Seth Bolt got into a fistfight backstage before a show. Bear and Bo went months without speaking.

Nevertheless, the remaining trio of Bear, Bo, and Seth, being the workaholics that they are, shook the dust off their boots and pushed on towards a new album, an album they dragged kicking and screaming into existence. Its focus: leaving aside the notion that the band had anyone to please but themselves, and making a record that would make Needtobreathe, and only Needtobreathe, proud.

There’s an energy to this album, a certain excitement that almost sounds like a band making its first EP in a garage. The songs are stompy and clappy, the choruses shoutable, the melodies simple. “State I’m In” and “The Heart” are hoedown-ready romps, “Oh Carolina” is a rollicking Who-esque anthem. The up-tempo tracks are punctuated by tambourine, pounding percussion, wailing pedal steel, and layers upon layers of gang vocals.

But the heart and soul of Wasteland lay in its more intimate moments. The title track takes its sweet time working up to a proud refrain as Bear muses about the band’s past three years. Bear gets theological dealing with success and failure on “Difference Maker,” possibly my favorite song Needtobreathe has released yet, and looks forward on “Rise Again,” which bounces on a melody Cat Stevens could have written.  And “Brother,” Needtobreathe’s ode to one another, reinforces that while they may have hit a rough patch, this band is not going anywhere.

It’s not as consistent from start to finish as The Outsiders, and gone are the dramatic rises and falls that defined The Reckoning. The bear roars a little less. It’s missed. “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” seems to die prematurely, waiting for a climax that doesn’t hit. That young band energy I referenced before? That energy has a drawback that manifests itself in a jaggedness, a certain out-of-left-field quality noted particularly on the Breakfast Club-ready “Where the Money Is” or “Multiplied,” which practically falls into CCM territory.

Don’t mistake my meaning, however: none of these songs is bad; rather, on the whole its a solid album and with each listen, another layer is peeled back, letting something show that we might have missed on The Reckoning: the band’s heart and soul.

DOWNLOAD: State I’m In, The Heart, Difference Maker

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