Back in 2012, Jimmy Needham’s “Clear the Stage” was the best song of the year, and it wasn’t a hard decision for The Bummys to make. Songwriter Ross King had written it ten years prior, but Needham imbued the decade-old lyrics with new life as a clarion call to be doers of the Word and not just readers, to mean it when you say you love the Lord, to show it by being willing to cast aside anything in an attempt to grab ahold of Him more tightly. Eight years into his career, Needham had released his best song, mainstream success be damned.
Unfortunately, the song shared its title with Needham’s most uneven record to date. Until Clear the Stage, Needham had managed to combine a Christian contemporary, guitar-driven sound with an R&B-influenced aesthetic. His first album for a label was 2006’s stripped-down Speak, a bluntly honest collection of songs. The two following albums, Not Without Love and Nightlights gradually increased their dependence on the engineering room, sounding more and more produced, but still managing to fill their space with engaging records. Clear the Stage was the breaking point, fully embracing an overproduced CCM sound that lacked the edge that made Speak such a strong statement. “Clear the Stage” the song was a masterpiece; Clear the Stage the album, not so much.
Vice & Virtue doesn’t exactly abandon that overproduction. There’s a lot of musical help coming from sources that aren’t Needham’s guitar or voice on this album. But that edge is back, and with a purpose. Instead of doubling down on the previous album’s generic sound (which, while I wasn’t a fan, did give him his highest-charted album to date), Needham seems to go in the opposite direction, embracing his funk tendencies that had previously only played at the edges of his recordings.
This change in style, is clear from the moment the opening track, the title song, begins, with his voice sounding more than ever like a percussion instrument and his guitars building a funk groove underneath, a groove that continues in one form or another throughout the entire album. The second song, “Thank You”, goes full falsetto for its chorus and backing vocals, sounding like a revamped, Christian version of an Earth, Wind & Fire hit. “Jekyll & Hyde” takes a slower, more bluesy approach as Needham’s voice slides over the rhythm section with a warning about the duality of human nature. The final track is one of Needham’s patented spoken word tracks (Clear the Stage was his first album without one, by the way), and it’s his best one yet, maybe because it’s his first with an accompanying instrumental track, or maybe it’s because that instrumental track is one of the funkiest things on the whole album.
Christian music has always been ignored by the mainstream media, when it’s not being ridiculed. Reactively, Christian media is always going to overstate the quality of Christian pop culture. That’s why, for example, Switchfoot gets no attention from major publications while Christian music websites lionize Switchfoot as one of the greatest bands of the past twenty years, when the band’s real story lies somewhere in between how the two sides of media have told it. The Christian music industry is littered with subpar songwriters and musicians, so when someone is truly great, like Switchfoot (or Relient K, or Audio Adrenaline, or, to go old school, Amy Grant- take your mainstream casualty pick), their quality gets lost in translation between its coverage in the Christian media and its secular coverage, if it gets any of the latter at all.
Jimmy Needham is like those artists, making great music that deserves mainstream recognition. Clear the Stage received rave reviews from Christian publications, when it really wouldn’t have held a candle to its mainstream contemporaries. Vice & Virtue, however, holds up outside the Christian bubble as a real record of genuinely great music, full of secular touchstones like James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Pharrell that, in a perfect world, would confirm Needham’s status as a creative force for good even in mainstream media. The other obvious influence on Vice & Virtue, clear in songs like “All We Need Is Need” and “Forever and Ever Amen”, is gospel music, the one version of Christian creativity accepted and celebrated by the rest of the world as vital to music history.
Like the best Christian artists (David Crowder and the 116 Clique belong in that category in addition to those mentioned above), Needham takes forms of music perfected in the mainstream and uses them for new creative purposes in pursuit of God’s glory. But even with all these influences making such an impact on the musical sound of Vice & Virtue, the mainstream media will still ignore him, not because his music is bad, but because the music is committed to telling the story of the Gospel. I suppose it’s silly to lament non-Christian media failing to embrace someone that is so bold in their glorification of Christ, even if that someone is doing music just as well if not better than all the artists those publications do cover. But I value what the great musicians in pop history have added to our culture and my life, and I long for the Christian artists I love to have a place in that history. But for now, let’s just appreciate the feat Needham has pulled off: he made one of the funkiest albums of the year and also one of the most God-glorifying. That’s a rare combination.