Anberlin has always been a good band, but when they created the album Cities, they became something brilliant. Their unique blend of alt-rock, synths and Stephen Christian’s unique vocals came together perfectly to make a positively amazing album. Then…there was New Surrender. It was still a decent album, but there was something missing. It was like the raw emotion of Cities wasn’t there anymore.
The explanation for this is that Aaron Sprinkle, the producer of Cities, did not produce New Surrender or the following album. When news broke last year that Anberlin was bringing him back as a producer, expectations were set high. REALLY high. As in, “could-this-album-ever-be-better-or-even-as-good-as-Cities?” high.
The answer is no. However, Vital comes pretty close.
When I put the CD in and was greeted with “Self-Starter,” I had mixed feelings, but I needed to remind myself that this album wasn’t Cities, it was Vital. The first thing I noticed was that Stephen Christian’s vocals have changed significantly. They’re still instantly recognizable, but some of his unique tone and pronunciation has been lost. This is not necessarily a bad thing – I know quite a few people who don’t like Anberlin because “the singer sounds weird.” (Their words, certainly not mine.) While I may not love the change in vocal style, it may not even be something that could be changed. Some singers sound very different later in their career than they did in the beginning.
In general, though, the album is very good musically. For the most part, Anberlin seems to have refined their unique, heavy alt-rock style rather than deviating from it. There are a few tracks that aren’t standard fare (“Other Side,” “Innocent”), but they work well in the flow of the album. My only disappointments: There’s a lack of synths throughout the album except for one or two synth-heavy songs, and a couple that include them, And the vocals are frequently put through a filter, which is not only annoying, but when used poorly, can destroy an album. It thankfully doesn’t here, but it does bother me.
Lyrics, though, are where Vital is weaker. Anberlin has never been terribly up-front with their Christianity, but Cities made references to it (including some very good ones in their masterpiece of a closer, “(*Fin)” ). However, Vital is not strong in this area. I have trouble finding much meaning in most of the songs. (This is why I wish that every CD and every MP3 download had a booklet explaining the meanings behind every song). There are still a couple of references to God, but not many. Some lyrics sometimes seem to (almost) go against what the band believes, like:
“Don’t we all want to be loved,
Don’t we all write our own songs,
Don’t we all learn right from wrong…” (“Modern Age”)
If Anberlin is a Christian band, it seems they would have chosen to end the song (or change it) with the idea that God is the writer of our lives, and something to reconcile the line about right and wrong. Ironically, the best lyrics come from “God, Drugs and Sex,” the song with the title that probably steered many people away from this album. However, it’s a great song. The lyrics are about how a relationship between a Christian and a non-Christian is destined not to work, and how God, drugs and sex just don’t mix.
“God, Drugs and Sex” is the best song on the album, easily. Featuring great vocals without noticable filters, a softer side of the instruments, and great lyrics, this is not a song to be missed.
“Someone Anyone” is like the “Hello Alone” of Vital – the similarities are instantly apparent. However, it’s a unique, synth-heavy rocker that I really enjoy.
“Self-Starter” (which happens to be the opening track), is another great rock track, though lacking in synths, but I hope Anberlin makes more songs like this.
I really love the music of “Modern Age;” it’s definitely the best on the album, but it does have the aforementioned lyrics problem, which kind of reduces my enjoyment of it. However, the music still (mostly) redeems this track. Because it’s really, really good music.
“Innocent” is okay lyrically, and okay musically. In fact, that’s the best word to describe this track: “okay.” It’s too synth / filter heavy for my tastes.
Weird, abrupt section changes, uninteresting lyrics, and unnecessary gang vocals make up “Desires.” This would have been better as a B-side track
Going into Vital, you simply cannot expect every aspect of Cities repeated over again (which I made the mistake of doing the first time I listened to it). While it definitely doesn’t surpass Cities on my list, it’s an easy #2 for the band, and it grew on me the more I listened to it. Despite its imperfections, this is still a great album and an easy recommendation for any fan of Anberlin or good rock music.
8.5 out of 10 stars.