Album Review :
Scott Stapp - Proof of Life

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Artist: Scott Stapp
Album: Proof of Life
Label: Wind-Up
Release Date: 11.05.13
Reviewer: Lee Brown

Track Listing: 

  1. Slow Suicide
  2. Who I Am
  3. Proof of Life
  4. New Day Coming
  5. Only One
  6. Break Out
  7. Hit Me More
  8. Jesus was a Rock Star
  9. What Would Love Do?
  10. Crash
  11. Dying to Live

Scott Stapp, frontman for the Multi-platinum selling band Creed, has been very open of late about the struggles he has had with drugs, alcohol, and questions of faith in the past. In his 2012 auto-biography Sinner’s Creed, Stapp began the public side of this conversation in full force, even though it was hinted at in prior interviews and articles, particularly around his involvement in The Passion of The Christ soundtrack. With his former band Creed regularly mistakenly classified as a “Christian” band in their heyday, many fair-whether fans will find Stapp’s wrestling with spiritual issues simply a progression of past material and his dealing with his “sins” as merely a rock-and-roll narrative.

With Proof of Life, Stapp brings these issues and questions to the forefront as the album wrestles with past demons, current hope, and future empowerment in a big way. On the whole, there are a few strands or themes that weave their into the framework of the album’s tapestry. The first big strand is that of past mistakes. Stapp, as in his autobiography, is not afraid to cut open the mistakes of his past and expose them to the light. Though this theme appears more dominant in the front portion of the record, even the closing tracks deal with this heavily. So beginning in “Slow Suicide,” this theme weaves through “Who I Am,” “New Day Coming,” “What Would Love Do?,” “Crash,” and is brought to its natural conclusion in “Dying to Live.”

The second major strand is that of self-empowerment and change. “Proof of Life,” “New Day Coming,” “Break Out,” “Hit Me More” and”What Would Love Do?” seem the most dominant on this strand, with “Break Out” and “Hit Me More” being the poster children. The final major strand is that of redemption. For this, “New Day Coming,” “Only One,” and “Dying to Live” become the dominant references, with “What Would Love Do?” and “Jesus was a Rock Star” being fringe tracks (as discussed below).

Now, in looking at the individual strands being used on this album, everything seems to be in place to weave a beautiful tapestry of a redemptive message that begins in “sin/failure,” working through their current implications with fire and a fighting attitude, and finally crashing onto the shores of redemption and hope. To be sure, these elements are all here to a degree, but just as Stapp dealt primarily with vague spiritual messages in his Creed albums, something continually felt lacking here as well.

While there are certainly some amazingly inspiring and stand-out moments to be found on Proof of Life, on average I kept getting the feeling that something was being held back. As I’ve stated before, I’m a message guy. I believe wholeheartedly that a not insignificant percentage of the human race can learn to produce excellent sounding music to one degree or another, but what sets bands apart is the content of their message. I dealt with the implications of this directly in a recent article about purity in the media. Knowing a small amount about Stapp’s faith journey and considering his “mainstream” profile, I wondered a bit where he would land on faith issues and how this thread would shape the rest of the album.

Unfortunately, save for a few choice moments, the spiritual message presented is still a bit muddy. Take for example, the empowerment strand. While certainly impassioned and fitting to a rock-and-roll album, the message behind tracks like “Slow Suicide” and “Hit Me More” focus entirely on the self and the present life with little hint of a deeper hope to be found. It can and should be argued that the latter message is much more apparent in “New Coming Day” and “Dying to Live,” which it is, but the effect of the former serves to lessen (rather than prepare the way for and deepen) the latter.

There were also quite a few missed opportunities. For example, the track “What Would Love Do?” is a wonderful and endearing song on the surface with its message of stepping back from a situation and asking what “love would do?” However, Stapp goes so far as to personify “love” as an entity in his lyrics, “what would love do if it were here in this room… standing between me and you?,” yet falls short of diving into what/who this “love” really is. Personifying love as an entity and yet leaving “it” as an “it” is exactly the type of missed opportunity I’m speaking of. Sure, it may seem trivial to quibble over love being called an “it,” but Stapp purposely used his words to give “love” a body and yet left “it” without a face. A simple change from “it” to “He” (not to get into an argument about the genderful nature of God) would have been one step towards giving “love” a face, even if Stapp did not want to name God in fear of alienating a portion of his audience. However, it would have been even more impactful to use the already potent word picture Stapp summons to mind and then show the true face of “Love” and redemption to clinch it. As is, “What Would Love Do” is a watered down (commenting on the message, not the music) version of the now overly abused track “What Would Jesus Do?” by Big Tent Revival.

At this point, someone may argue that Stapp and company intentionally placed “What Would Love Do?” after “Jesus was a Rockstar” and therefore the implication is in its proximity to that track. However, even “Jesus was a Rockstar” gets a little hazy. While certainly a great song that is not afraid to point the listener to Jesus and His historical miracles, I wonder if the song could fall into “Jesus is my Homeboy” territory in places. Now, hear my heart on this, I am not here doubting Scott Stapp’s faith in Christ, nor commenting on the level of devotion he personally has. Such things are not my place. However, as a reviewer who is tasked to critically examine music and the messages they hold, “Jesus was a Rock Star” could easily be sung from syncretistic lips with little needing to be changed. This track could just as easily come from the mouth of a singer who merely has a trendy interest in Jesus (form but not power, again). There is, of course, a positive side to that, which I’ll discuss later.

For reference, Syncretism is a buffet spirituality. It says, “I’ll take this teaching from here and that practice from there and fill my spiritual plate with only what I want.” Jesus, on the other hand, said “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and claimed to be the ONLY way to heaven. In that regard, “Jesus was a Rock Star” (again a standout track in most respects) claims the substance but neglects the true redemptive power.

Perhaps the singer chose these steps intentionally to leave the album open to more listeners, while merely hinting towards deeper waters. It is, after all, being produced by Wind Up and will be released in the secular marketplace dominantly. However, bands like Skillet have proven quite recently that you can have both the substance of faith and the power of unabashedly proclaiming Jesus Christ while still making huge waves in the music world. I’m not saying definitively that the album watered down certain elements to reach a broader crowd, I’m just saying its been proven that you don’t have to.

Perhaps the track that most draws my ire, however, is “Who I Am.” On my very first listen through this album a couple weeks ago, I was so taken aback by the spirit and language used in “Who I Am” that I nearly stopped listening to the album entirely for a bit. While most will not mind the “mild” profanity used repeatedly in the track, I could not shake the alarm that went off in my spirit every time I forced myself through the track for an honest review. There’s just something about the spirit of the track that simply jars me in my own spirit every time and I’ve learned the hard way that when that happens, its simply best for me to stay away.

Those who have become familiar with my style of reviewing will know that I overwhelmingly seek to find the good in albums and there is still quite a bit of good to be found on Proof of Life in spite of the critique above. Certainly, if the entirety of the album consisted of “New Coming Day,” “Only One,” “Jesus was a Rock Star,” and “Dying to Live,” this would easily be one of my favorite albums of the year.

“New Coming Day” is far and away the best track on the album. It weaves together perfectly the “head in my hands” pain of Stapp’s past with the most distinctly redemptive moments on the album. “I’ll get back up, for good this time. I ain’t coming down. I’ll get back up, because my whole life I was lost but now I’m found. It’s the dawn of a new day.” Though the song could still be accused of having a little too much self empowerment and still does not go so far as to clearly and unmistakably pinpoint where this hope has come from, the line “I was lost, but now I’m found” has a clear and purposeful parallel with “Amazing Grace” that the listener gets the point.

Following this, “Only One” does a much better job of “giving Love a face” than in the latter “What Would Love Do?” “I could take you from your nightmares and put you inside your dreams, and you would see I’m never gonna leave you. Even when you fell so low, like you might let go… I will be the first hand reaching out, I will be the last one giving up on you… I will be the first, last, first, last and only one.” Though the “I” is left vague enough that the listener could read anyone they want into that divine perspective, there are enough context clues to point to that “first and last” hand belonging to the One who is truly First and Last.

I’ve already examined “Jesus was a Rock Star” from a critical viewpoint, above, so allow me to clear the air and state that this is a powerful song. It is just honest enough to present Christ, yet engaging enough from a “rocker” point of view that even those mildly interested in the historical Messiah from Nazareth will proudly jam to the song. In terms of musical style, this track is one of the most aggressive on the album and even includes a hype-man in the background who could easily fit with a P.O.D. or Cypress Hill styled sound.  In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to compare this track’s sound with lighter RED moments or heavier moments from G. S. Megaphone. But, the last thing I’ll say about this song is that I can easily see “hip” and “cool” (read; “older!”) youth pastors playing this track weekly as soon as the album comes out. Heck, I’ll likely be a willing part of that statistic.

The closing song of the album is the very fitting “Dying to Live,” which engages the brokenness weaved throughout the album, but becomes the second most distinctive moment of hope on the record. Musically, “Dying to Live” is a power anthem at heart with just a hint of “the stained glass windows where I’ve been” mixed in. More than any self-empowerment message proclaimed on this album, “Dying to Live” hits the nail right on the head of what it takes to truly be freed and “empowered.” The true redemptive message is that we must die to our past mistakes and personal demons… that we are powerless to bring about change by ourselves and must helpless fall at the feet of a blood-stained Savior. “Everything is so clear when you’ve got one foot in the grave…. I’m dying to live.”

Musicianship: Unsurprisingly, Scott’s album sounds very similar to a Creed or Daughtry album with some John Davis (not of KoRn, but of Superdrag) vocal similarities. After several listens through, however, the album I would most closely compare the musical element to would be G. S. Megaphone’s Beautiful World. Both share similar affinities in the way they navigate through more somber soundscapes on the way to bigger rocking moments and both deal with the brokenness within while reaching to redemptive love outside of the self.  However, the similarity does break down in that G. S. Megaphone’s masterpiece does utilize a little more variation and has much deeper spiritual waters.

Lyrical/Spiritual Content: As addressed profusely above, the lyrical and spiritual content are a bit muddy. On the one hand, tracks like “Dying to Live,” “Only One,” “Jesus was a Rock Star,” and “New Coming Day” range from good to simply fantastic, however the remaining tracks present a vague spirituality that never quite take the listener anywhere but leave them to interpret their own meaning into the tracks. “Who I Am” should be avoided entirely. “Crash” is predictable and rather campy. Tracks like “Slow Suicide” and “Hit Me More” have redemptive threads in that they challenge the listener to get back up and fight again, but they fall short in that they are largely self empowerment with little hint to the true power that allows us to weather the storms of life.

That said, the personal element of the album is honest and open. Scott is very free about his past, even going so far as to call some of his actions “sins.” For that side of things, the album should be praised. Scott does not try to clean up or marginalize the effect of his past. Looking into his history (see video embedded below) for even just a moment makes it apparent why there may be some vague spiritual elements. I just wish the powerful God that saved him was more prominently portrayed rather than leaving much open to the subjectivity of the listener. Perhaps a slight and simple remedy would be found in placing “New Coming Day” and “Only One” before “Dying to Live.” Though this would not have “fixed” the problem, it would have helped with this a bit, in that it would have given the album a proper “third act” and drawn more weight to the redemptive element that does clearly exist.

Lasting Value: Though Stapp has produced a few albums (mostly as Creed) that many still listen to today, I don’t see this release sticking around too long. A few songs (as mentioned repeatedly) are keepers and may stand the test of time, but on the whole, I don’t see this album being referenced in the years to come.

Overall: Scott Stapp returns without the “Creed” banner to share his story of a broken past healed by a loving God. Proof of Life is not afraid to rock out, though a few tracks have serious problems and the flow of the album isn’t cohesive. While the album is far from terrible, only a small number of tracks truly shine. That being said, those tracks that do shine, shine brightly. If the album were more in the vein of (or were an EP consisting entirely of) “New Coming Day,” “Only One,” Jesus was a Rock Star,” and “Dying to Live,” then this album would be one of the best of the year. However, the remaining tracks do not hold up to these sparkling gems.

On the positive side, fans of Creed/Stapp that have little spiritual background will find a positive and empowering message that may help them get more in touch with their spirituality and possibly even in “Jesus the rock star.” However, others will find an unfortunately vague “spirituality” that draws upon the form of the God who is Love, but fails to truly dive into His power.

RIYL: Creed, Daughtry, GS Megaphone, 12 Stones

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