NEEDTOBREATHE, a rock and roll band from South Carolina, released The Reckoning on September 20, 2011. It was their fourth studio album. It debuted at number six on the Billboard 200, number 1 on the Billboard rock charts, and number 1 on the Billboard Christian charts. By all measures, the album was a commercial and critical success.
With all that said, The Reckoning is a divisive album, for both the fans and the band. While we’re sure there are many NEEDTOBREATHE fans who have much deeper knowledge than we do about the complicated backstage issues that plagued the band during this time period, we think it’s safe to say those issues have left a stain on this album. We contend that’s a shame and a disservice to what should be recognized as one of the best albums of this century. The Reckoning turns ten this year and we decided to devote some time to discuss its music, impact, and legacy. Taking part in this conversation are Rambling Ever On regulars, Michael and Phill Lytle. Take it away fellas.
Phill Lytle: Let me start off this conversation with something easy. What did you think of The Reckoning when it was first released?
Michael Lytle: I was not a huge fan of NEEDTOBREATHE’s first couple albums. They had some good songs but overall the band was not really on my radar in any major way. Then they released The Outsiders in 2009 and all that changed. That record was so good and it raised my expectations for what they could accomplish as a band. Needless to say, I had VERY high hopes for The Reckoning. I was expecting it to be a great album. Those types of expectations usually lead to disappointment but in this case, they definitely did not. I loved it immediately and in the decade since it came out I have only grown to appreciate it more.
Michael: I know you liked their older material more than I did. What were you expecting leading up to this album?
Phill: I did like their first two albums more than you, but I also realized they were still finding their identity. The Outsiders was the first time NEEDTOBREATHE was truly themselves and it paid off. I loved that album unreservedly from the first time I heard it and it only grew in my mind with each listen. So, to say my expectations were high for The Reckoning would be an understatement. I was expecting greatness. And they delivered in every way I could have hoped. In fact, the album surpassed my incredibly high expectations. Honestly, the album felt like a band, totally confident in their abilities, attempting to create their masterpiece. They aimed for the sky and from my perspective, they hit their mark dead center.
Phill: So, we clearly both love The Reckoning. What is it about the album that resonates with you?
Michael: It is hard to put into words, but here goes. Of all their records this feels the most like they were trying to make a great album and were not concerned with radio singles. It’s more cohesive. I am not saying this to criticize their other work or even to criticize radio singles, but this one, as you said, was an attempt to “create their masterpiece.” Stylistically I appreciate that it is darker thematically, more aggressive musically, and more subtle lyrically. Those are all things that generally appeal to me in music so I was happy they went that route. Finally, it’s just so complete. 14 tracks and not really a weak song on the album. A song like “Tyrant Kings” did not really jump out to me at first and I would have considered filler at the end of the album. Now it’s probably my favorite song.
Michael: You are better than me at describing emotions from a particular album or song. So let’s go that direction. How does The Reckoning hit you on that level?
Phill: Total confidence. That’s how the album hits me. You might even be able to accuse the band of being a little too cocky on The Reckoning, though I wouldn’t go that far. They are self-aware enough to know how good they are and they don’t hide behind false modesty. They wear the badge of “outsider” proudly but The Reckoning is a very loud declaration that they belong in any conversation of the best bands. I don’t think it’s the best song of the album, but a lesser band wouldn’t even dream of opening an album with “Oohs and Ahhs”, let alone be able to pull it off.
Outside of that confidence, the album is satisfyingly complex but not in a showy way. They stretch themselves as writers and as musicians, and the musical palette of the album is enormous. They play with all the cards they possess on this one and you can hear it on every song. And, as you said, the album is so complete. Considering it is 14 songs, that is almost unheard of. I love it when bands give their fans as much music as possible, but it’s rare that each musical offering is of the highest quality. The Reckoning starts off with a bang and never lets up.
I’m not sure I really answered your question, though. There is an honesty and vulnerability in many of the songs. “White Fences”, “Able”, and “Maybe They’re On to Us” really stand out in this regard. And, as usual, there are plenty of energetic anthems from the band, with “Drive All Night”, “Keep Your Eyes Open”, and “Devil’s Been Talkin’” doing some of the heavy lifting.
I have a hard time understanding a fan of the band walking away from this album disappointed. Yet, it seems like some did based on online reactions I’ve read.
Phill: What is it about this album that you think is more divisive among the fans than the other albums?
Michael: Yeah, I don’t get it either. It doesn’t have the ready-made “Christian hit radio” type of song that some of their other albums had. Songs like “Washed by the Water”, “Something Beautiful” or “Testify”, maybe that disappointed some people. Like we mentioned earlier, it is a bit darker than their other work as well. We did not know it at the time but there was a lot of tension going on behind the scenes when this record was made. I think creative tension can make for great music and in this case, it definitely did, but maybe the fact that this wasn’t as “happy” sounding as their other work alienated some listeners.
Michael: Would you agree with me here, or do you think there is some other explanation?
Phill: Yeah, I think you nailed it. The album is darker, musically, and thematically. I think that turned off some fans a bit. It’s also their loudest album and even though their fans claim they want rock and roll from the band, I think most of them really only want rock and roll elements.
Or, maybe “Oohs and Ahhs” scared the pants off all the soccer moms who love NEEDTOBREATHE and they never gave the rest of the album much of a chance. Regardless, it’s their loss.
Phill: So, now that we are 10 years removed from the release, what songs have grown in your estimation (you’ve already mentioned “Tyrant Kings”) and what songs, if any, have dropped a little?
Michael: “Angel at My Door” is my least favorite song on the album. Not sure if it has dropped in my estimation or if I never really liked it all that much. The closer “Learn to Love” doesn’t jump out at first, but it’s such a good song. Definitely one that has grown on me. “Keep Your Eyes Open” seemed like a basic pop/rock song at first but it’s much more than that and has become a favorite. Songs like “White Fences”, “Drive All Night”, “The Reckoning”, “Wanted Man”, and “Devil’s Been Talkin” have been favorites from day one and they continue to be.
Michael: How about you?
Phill: I agree that “Angel At My Door” is the weakest on the album. Again, it’s not a bad song, but it lacks a little compared to the rest of the songs. I’ve definitely learned to love “Learn to Love”. (I’ll see myself out now.) It’s a really solid closer, opting for something quiet and reserved as opposed to “Let Us Love” from The Outsiders.
“Keep Your Eyes Open” was one of my favorites on the album when I first heard it. I still love it but it’s probably settled somewhere in the middle for me now. “Tyrant Kings” has moved into the top half of the album for me as well. Love that song!
Most of the other tracks have either stayed put or have grown in my mind. I’ve probably listened to the album all the way through 100’s of times and there is no diminishing return. That’s impressive.
Phill: Let’s wrap this up. Any final thoughts about the album? Something we haven’t touched on yet?
Michael: I forgot to mention earlier that I love how this album has an almost live feel. Songs like “Drive All Night”, “Tyrant Kings” and the title track have moments that you might expect to hear at a concert, but would generally be smoothed over in the studio. I’m probably not expressing that as clearly as I could, but when you listen to the songs you know exactly what I mean. I like the albums they have released since The Reckoning, but I do hope at some point in their career they revisit the more aggressive and edgier sound they harnessed for this album.
Phill: I agree. I’ve loved everything they have released, but it would be pretty cool to hear them explore a more aggressive sound in the future. To be honest, though, I’m not sure they are that same band anymore. Maybe it’s where they are in life – married, fathers, etc… but it feels like the stage they are in is contributing to a more subdued vibe on their albums. Now, their live shows are a different matter and they still bring the rock just fine so maybe there’s still hope for a more rock-heavy album.
Thanks for reading. As you can tell, we love The Reckoning. We are more than happy to contribute to the celebration of its 10th anniversary. It deserves all the praise it is getting.