PostHumous Record Review: Newsboys' Love Liberty Disco

Post-Humous Record Reviews: a personal refection on a long-forgotten album in need of a resurrection. 

The best pop/rock album to come out of the Christian music industry in the 1990's may come as a surprise to people. This is only my opinion of course, but my opinion is going to stand pretty firm:

Newsboys' Love Liberty Disco was the best pop/rock "Christian" album of the 1990's.

It was not the most epic Christian album of the 90's (DC Talk wins that award), but song for song it was the most well-written album and one of only a few albums that achieved what could be called a "classic" sound, rather than a typically dated 90's sound.  In other words, it still holds up and sounds fresh today.

What are my qualifications for a "best" album? Notice my category, which is best pop/rock CCM album. This means my tastes would be pretty mainstream.  An album does not need to be "art-rock" in order for me to consider it to be great.  My guidepost is The Beatles, who maintained the paradoxical balance between progressive and conventional art better than anyone.  For this reason Love Liberty Disco is my favorite (Christian) rock album of the 90's.

This was not always the case though.  I was a big fan of the Newsboys all throughout my coming of age years in the 90's. I had a lot of their albums--all of them from Boys Will Be Boyz to Step Up to the Microphone and they were on constant rotation on my home stereo and yellow Sports Walkman.  But when I heard they were putting out a disco album I was immediately turned off.  I was not interested.  Then after seeing the video to the title track on Christian television I was even less interested. Sure, it was a decently catch song but it all seemed like some strange attempt at being trendy and clever—except not, because who wants to listen to disco? Disco is lame, right? Whatever this was I was not interested.

But over the years the album simply would not leave me alone.  In fact, there were three instances over the course of multiple years where the album all but grabbed me and forced me to listen to it.

1. The first instance occurred when early in the fall of 1999 I somehow got some free tickets to see Newsboys live under the dome in Peoria, Illlinois.  For those of you who do not remember, they traveled all across America on the "Circus Con Dios" tour with an inflatable dome (supposedly a first for a rock band). They played on a dry dusty patch of the Peoria County Fairgrounds with Beanbag as the opener, and eventually had the show cut early by the police because people in the neighborhoods nearby were complaining of the noise.  The dome was pretty impressive but I still did not care much for the new music, save for one song, "Everyone's Someone." There was a raw honesty to their performance, especially to Furler's vocal delivery, and the drums and guitar were simply entrancing.  It was just one song though. I left the concert and forgot about it.

2. Instance two occurred when I was living is Bastrop, Louisiana for a month doing ministry work (for an organization called ACE Teams) in March of 2000.  The south was a strange and uncomfortable place for me and one of the only saving graces (besides my wonderful team members who were suffering with me) was Christian radio.  The radio station was really not all that good but it brought with it some of the familiarity of home, along with a song that was getting constant airplay (what seemed once an hour) during the Spring of the year 2000: "Beautiful Sound".  As that song played over and over again in the pastor's van we drove back and forth in, I began to realize it was something of a masterpiece.  The vocals were pretty odd for a conventional CCM song and I could not really make heads or tails of what they were singing about.  But the music, especially with that strange raucous middle section, I could tell was ascending to some great musical heights.

3. The third instance was more of a season from 2002-2003, where a kid (or young adult leader) in my youth group back home where I was interning kept listening to Love Liberty Disco.  The kid (young man) was a sound guy, was in a rock band, and had good taste in music.  I just kept listening and he eventually gave me his copy, which I ended up losing. I went and bought my own copy and by this time I was hooked on the album.

And now, ten years later I can write with what I believe is no hyperbole that Newsboys' Love Liberty Disco is a pop/rock masterpiece, the greatest "Christian" rock album of the 90's and one of the greatest albums of that era. Period.

The album's greatness is simply described.  It contains 10 perfectly crafted pop songs. There is an abundance of musical ideas, from vocal melodies and harmonies, to crisp guitar hooks (Jody Davis' guitar never sounded better), to expert string arrangements. Each song is its own little gem--nothing is overstated and no song overstays its welcome. There is only one weak song, "Good Stuff", and note I said weak and not bad. Over the years this particular song has not aged well, being the most "90's sounding" song on the album, especially with the addition of a misplaced scratch turntable.  This is Newsboys' quietest record but it is also their maturest. The guitars and rhythm section often sound consciously restrained and simplified, an act of wisdom and not for lack of ideas or a forced quietness. After years of repeat listens it seems like whenever the choice was between stripping the sound back and keeping it simple or making the sound bigger and more epic, they nearly always went with simpler. From Davis' simple strums or carefully chosen guitar riffs, to Furler/Phillips' minimal rhythms, or Jeff Frankensteins ever present but never overbearing keyboards, they always made the better decision production-wise.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the music is Furler's vocal delivery, which often ascends into a delicate falsetto that seems as if it might break at any moment.  What I am most intrigued by in his singing is how unpolished he often sounds.  He basically hits all the notes but it is not a virtuosic performance—it is quirky and flawed but also vulnerable, raw, and beautiful. When it comes to crafting a "classic" album, it is often the idiosyncrasies artists allow to shine through that make their work stand out from more middle of the road work.  In other words, I would contend that if they had cleaned Furler's vocals up, perhaps making him sing an octave lower or going for an overall more polished sound, the album would not have been half as great.  This is a strange and fascinating phenomenon to me, one that speaks of the mystery and transcendence art brings to our lives.

While there are two overt disco songs on the album, the songs on the whole masterfully resonate a classic rock sound without being derivative.  Newsboys have taken the feel of a certain era of music and written a unique set of songs.  This is the mark of true craftsmanship; to pay homage without plagiarizing but instead create something wholly new.

This maturity extends to the lyrics as well which to me get into some deep theological stuff, especially for the typically shallow pop genre.  "Love Liberty Disco" for instance, despite being essentially a dance party song, says a lot about what it means to be in the Church, what it means to be the Church, and be a member of God's family, the Body of Christ.  It is amazing to me that some deep theology and ecclesiology can be so easily embedded in a seemingly throwaway disco song.  

Moving on, "Forever Man" and "I Would Give Everything" are rooted in incarnational theology and also point to Furler's and Joel's eschatology: "And the Longer I live the stronger I feel the creator put us here" from "Forever Man", and "How long till everything is new?/How long till our bodies are renewed?/How long till we see you face to face?/How long till we reach that perfect place?" from "I Would Give Everything".  

"Good Stuff" is a great exposition on 1 Corinthians 13 and Ecclesiastes is expertly woven into "Everyone's Someone" while also managing to turn a somewhat cliched truism ("everyone's someone don't cha know?") into a profound statement of God's love and intention for humanity on earth.  If anything, the recurring theme throughout the album is found in the narrator's dual plea to see God "face to face", to know God as intimately as one can be known, and then to call out for the listener to do the same. 

At the same time Furler's maturity shines through with paradoxical lyrics. There is a longing to experience a deep all-consuming love, and yet there's this crazy fear involved in that process, where to give oneself over to God is to allow oneself to be shattered, to actually "break".  The singer of these songs wants to give himself over to God and yet is afraid to do so.  He wants that oneness, that relationship, that pure love, that overwhelming ecstasy, but he's also afraid he'll lose himself.  It is what would be called an existential crisis, and he either has to stay on the ledge or take the leap believing God will catch him and embrace him and change him. 

The paradoxical language extends further in how the singer loves life and loves God, but in seeing how painful life is and how we do not yet truly know God as he is fully known he also longs for this life to end, for the parousia to take place.  The lyrics are mature because they are beautiful and hopeful and fearful and conflicted all at the same time, and in so doing they express the journey of the Christian life.

It is telling that Love Liberty Disco has not gotten more critical attention. The Christian music industry has never excelled at heaping praise on artistic achievement and/or risk taking, but instead giving the most attention to that which is most popular.  But this album deserves praise. Real, critical praise.  It deserves to be remembered as a landmark and it deserves to be listened to repeatedly and on nice speakers.  Man, I wish it were on vinyl.  

One of the strangest aspects of this album's history is that it is even considered strange to begin with, that within the Christian music realm a set of songs that was so obviously a loving homage to some of the greatest music of the past 30 or so years was considered an odd misstep for the band.  Another very odd thing is in many ways the old Newsboys at their peak in the 90's have been basically forgotten in the midst of the band's new incarnation with lead singer Michael Tait (formerly of DC Talk) which in reality just represents a continuation of the Newsboys as a brand and not as a unique artistic entity.  It would be like forgetting Freddie Mercury fronted and was the creative force behind Queen because they hired some replacement in the wake of his death and then to top it all they started writing new different sounding Queen songs and they hardly played any of the older better more well loved material.  But I would say Newsboys from Not Ashamed (1992) up until Thrive (2002) were a unique voice within Christian music, maintaining a unique dance-rock sound true to their Australian pop roots in the middle of an era where everyone felt the pressure to sound like Nirvanna or Oasis.

Newsboys' Love LIberty Disco deserves the status of a cult album, one that gains popularity and reverence as the years go on. Hopefully I am not the only one to think so. Hopefully there is still a lot of life ahead for the music on this (supposedly) quirky little album.

Other Entries in the PostHumous Record Reviews series
PostHumous Record Review Week (an introduction)
This Train's Mimes of the Old West and The Emperor's New Band
Aaron Sprinkle's Bareface
Mavis Staple's We'll Never Turn Back
Over the Rhine's Drunkard's Prayer
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Zedman said...

Amen to this. So it was not just me...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with your review of this album!!!