Now six albums deep into a career spanning nearly twenty years, NEEDTOBREATHE could probably release an album out of the blue and still have a hit record on their hands. The South Carolina-based group’s latest release, Hard Love (stylized as H A R D L O V E), is an experiment in pushing the boundaries of American rock and roll. Over the course of a dozen songs, the band channels a little piece of everything that has worked in their career so far along with a variety of influences spanning the course of rock, pop, and synth to create a wholly unique listening experience that is an immediate contender for the best album of 2016.
Let’s step back for a moment because it’s important to remember that this album, as well as it’s predecessor (2014’s Rivers In The Wasteland), almost never happened. Coming off the lengthy touring cycle that followed the release of NEEDTOBREATHE’s fourth studio album, The Reckoning, the members of the group had reached a creative impasse that left them frustrated with one another and unsure of their willingness to continue making music together. Their work to heal their relationships, both with each other and their individual families, fueled the sound of Rivers, which borrowed heavily the ideas of simple structures of their earlier work. Fans were happy, as was the band, but the amount of risk being taken was admittedly very little.
Fast forward to 2015, and NEEDTOBREATHE once again found themselves coming off a lengthy album cycle with no real plans for what they would do next. The band ultimately decided to remove themselves from the world by seeking shelter in a literal cabin in the woods far from cell service and the constant distraction of social media. For the first time in years the members of NEEDTOBREATHE were able to create and experiment without feeling the need to please their label or audience, and it’s in that time that the band uncovered the sound that would guide their work on Hard Love. To attempt defining that sound in a single sentence or paragraph would be a fool’s errand, but suffice to say it’s a continuation of the band’s most forward-thinking work that doesn’t lose sight of the themes and ideas that helped initially forge the group’s relationship with their audience. It’s fun, but humble, and there is a sense of slight uneasiness throughout, as if the band is doing what they want knowing full well it may not be what fans want to hear.
An initial play of Hard Love may leave listeners with a sense that the record is a bit scattershot—and from a certain sonic standpoint that may be true—but on repeat plays the overarching lyrical theme slowly reveals the interconnectivity of the songs. “Money & Fame,” “Happiness,” and “Be Here Long” unintentionally serve as anchor points to the record, existing both as potential singles and as a reminder that the one thing no one can buy is more time. These songs also deal with the problems that arise when someone tries to balance time with those they love and the work that must be done to fulfill one’s own dreams. This is probably clearest on “Happiness,” where the chorus details the feeling of sleeplessness in the response to the knowledge that you are meant for something great. You might not know what that great thing is, or how you are going to get it, but something inside you is screaming for action. That passion will take you far if you let it, but it comes with a cost, and exploring the true value of dream chasing is what NEEDTOBREATHE do for the majority of Hard Love.
The answer to whether or not you should sacrifice your current happiness in the pursuit of things that may never come to fruition, if there is one, appears to reveal itself in the album’s closing tracks. “Let’s Stay Home Tonight,” which is more or less a straightforward love song, celebrates the beauty of a simple night with the one you love. “Testify” hearkens back to the more religion-heavy material of the group’s early records, but not in such a way that secular fans will feel like outsiders. The song is about speaking your truth and knowing there will be those who will listen without casting judgment. This is echoed again on “Clear,” a song that was written for the bride of one member, which further explores the idea that honesty, love, and self-acceptance are the greatest riches anyone can hope to find in this life. The rest is just filler, and when we lose sight of that truth we find ourselves struggling.
NEEDTOBREATHE cannot keep your eyes and heart focused on what matters most, but they can share their most personal struggles in hopes it makes our lives a bit easier to navigate. Hard Love is an album born from lessons learned the hard way, and its message is one the world desperately needs in a time like the one we find ourselves in right now. I’m not foolish enough to think one record can change the world, but with a little luck it just might make a difference.