I’ve put this off for far too long. I’ve been living with CAVES, NEEDTOBREATHE’s new album, for a while now, so I guess it’s time I write a few words about it. I’ll preface this review by saying I love NEEDTOBREATHE. I think they have been one of the most consistent bands in or out of the Christian music world. They have a handful of legitimately great albums, and the rest of their discography is incredibly solid.
When you read that, perhaps it sounds like there is an unwritten “but” waiting to rear its head. If that is the vibe you were picking up, you were right on target. CAVES is an album I have been struggling with since it was released on September 15th. I’m not sure what to do with it. I like all 11 songs on the album. I love quite a few of them. Honestly, I don’t think any song is bad. So why am I not connecting to it as much as I have to their previous albums? I have no idea.
Maybe that’s a good reason to not write a review. I don’t know. I would rather do my processing out in the open and you, dear readers, get to live inside my head for a bit.
CAVES – the review
CAVES opens with one of the better rockers the band has created in a number of years. I love everything about “The Cave” – the tempo, the sense of danger just around the next note, and most importantly, the blistering guitar work by Tyler Burkum. I can’t wait to have my face melted off when I hear this one in person. So…great start to the album. A throwback to a more aggressive and edgy NEEDTOBREATHE. I can dig it.
Then the band hits the brakes with “Everknown”. That’s not a knock on the song – it’s beautiful. Independent of the album, I enjoy it every time I hear it. It just feels jarring to go from the rough and rowdy, pulse-pounding, rock-you-like-a-hurricane opener to a Top 40, radio-ready, meticulously crafted in-the-studio, pop song. Again, the song is good with lovely production, beautiful vocals, and an expansive sound. It’s just that we’re two songs into the album and I have zero clue what the connective tissue for this album is. What’s the thematic throughline or the musical vision that inspired this particular collection of songs?
The third track is where I really get lost with the album. “How Wonderful We Are” is my least favorite track on CAVES and it definitely hurts the flow and effectiveness of the album as a whole. It’s not a bad song, and the general concept works, but this feels like a deep cut, later in-the-album sort of song. Not a song you want to feature in the first handful of tracks. (With that said, I’ve seen them do this song live in studio during a radio interview, and the stripped-down version is dramatically better than what we get on the album.)
The album picks up quite a bit starting with track number four – “Dreams” featuring Judah and the Lion. It’s an earnest, heart-on-their-sleeve anthem and I’m all the way here for it. More cynical listeners might write it off as cheesy pandering, but I hear sincerity and honesty in this giant “Thank You!” to the fans. Plus, the song has a great hook, a giant chorus, and pounding drums to round out the awesomeness.
The good times just keep rolling with “When You Forgive Someone”. While the lyrics are pretty simple, the message is great, and the melody is one of the strongest on the album. The guitar work during the verses is especially fun.
Unfortunately, the album falters a little with the sixth track, “Wasting Time”. It’s not a total loss, though. The verses work really well, with a punchy rhythm and some fun vocal work. The chorus changes gears pretty dramatically, and not for the better. I don’t hate any part of this song; I just think it has glimmers of a much better song. I do want to add that I imagine this song will work wonderfully in concert. I could see the band really having a ton of fun playing this one and giving it the right amount of energy it needs. Also, the horns and guitar work are stellar on this.
From this point on, CAVES is one great song after another starting with “Fall on Me” featuring guest vocalist, Carly Pearce. This is about as lovely of a song as NEEDTOBREATHE has ever performed. Gentle piano, swelling accompaniment, and a beautiful blending of the vocals make this song a standout for sure. I can see this song dominating the graduation and wedding playlists for the next few years. And I mean that as a compliment.
“Hideaway” is up next, and it doesn’t disappoint at all. The opening of the song, particularly when Seth Bolt comes in with the bass line, is just perfect. Bear Rineheart delicately sings the verses, transitioning to a more robust vocal performance for the choruses. He even throws in a little falsetto just for the fun of it. Musically, it’s another mostly subdued number, and that’s just fine because they nail it perfectly. There are little flourishes of beauty throughout this song, from the incredible background vocals to the mandolin solo. It’s definitely a high point.
The following track, “By and By” is a throwback, rockabilly, foot stomper. It would feel at home in a sweaty bar or an old time, charismatic church. It’s fun and I have no doubt this song will absolutely kill in concert.
Probably the most analyzed lyrics on the album are found in the next song, “Reaching Out to Find You”. Regardless if the song is about what many NEEDTOBREATHE fans seem to think it’s about, it’s a beautiful and emotional call for forgiveness and grace. Musically, it’s layers of chiming guitars, lovely piano and keys by Josh Lovelace, and echoing drums by Randall Harris.
“Temporary Tears”, the closing track is a fantastic end to the album. Guest vocalist Foy Vance adds a great sound and a ton of emotion. Again, the guitar work is a standout. A choir joins in after the second verse and it’s the exact right sound for this song. This is probably the mellowest song on CAVES, but it probably packs more emotion than much of the rest of the album. The final refrain of the song is hopeful, honest, and brimming with heart,
"Oh, joy, don't you leave me Just say you'll lead me here Oh, joy, oh, joy, come roll away These temporary tears
Final Thoughts about CAVES
Maybe my reaction to this album is making more sense after reading my thoughts about each song. Eleven tracks and I like or love nearly all of them. Yet, I don’t love the album. I know. It makes no sense to me either. I thought that maybe if I gave it more time, it would eventually click for me and I would fall in love with it completely. Maybe that will still happen for me. I hope so. As of right now, CAVES is an album I like full of songs I love.
Perhaps my reaction is because the first track, ostensibly the title track, promises something the rest of the album has no interest in delivering. Instead, the band has shifted into a more introspective, subdued mode. They are not young men in their 20’s anymore. They are middle-aged husbands and fathers. I can’t fault them for evolving and transitioning. They are no longer trying to prove themselves to anyone. No chips on their shoulders. That’s a great place to be, emotionally speaking. I’m just not sure if it’s the perfect environment to create the best possible art.
Or maybe I’m just lost in my own cave and am missing the key ingredient that makes CAVES truly special. Let me know in the comments or on our social media pages. If you love CAVES, tell me what I’m missing. I’m going to keep listening. I can promise that. NEEDTOBREATHE has earned that much. Thanks for reading!