There’s nothing quite like listening to a new album by one of your favorite bands. You want the music to be good, obviously. But that’s to oversimplify what’s at stake. You want it to be truly new: creative, innovative, true to who they are, of course, but also truly a progression of their sound.
Not only are you judging the music on its own merits, you’re projecting the album upon the band as a sort of temperature-taking: How is the band doing? Are they going strong? Are they petering out? Are they better than ever? Or (gulp) worse than ever?
If you think about it, though, the very best music — and the very best art — does something trippy. As you’re taking it in, what starts as something objective to behold transforms into a sort of mirror-like reflection. As you’re listening to a good song or gazing upon a beautiful painting, it touches something inside of you. You’re no longer judging the art, but yourself. How am I doing? Am I going strong? Am I petering out? Am I better than ever? Or (gulp) worse than ever?
Judah and the Lion is a band making that sort of music, particularly on their latest full-length album, Pep Talks, which they released in May. Come along with me, if you will, to explore what they revealed about themselves, what they helped me realize about my myself, and what they’re offering to anyone who just might need a Pep Talk of their own.
But first, some background. I first started listening to Judah and the Lion years ago, when their sound was still mostly folksy. They let their inner rockers out with their next album, the aptly named Folk, Hop, N’ Roll, which (you guessed it) also included a healthy helping of hip hop beats. If that sounds weird to you, well, then you’d be normal. (You’d probably not be a fan of “Old Town Road,” either, but that’s another story…)
Judah and the Lion’s music has always been super-catchy. But as it’s progressed and added complexity, it’s become something else, too: disorienting. You can’t throw that many disparate styles into a single album, much less a single song, and expect the average (or even the not-so-average) listener to be able to sit back and be soothed. And perhaps that’s exactly the point.
The band generally pulls few punches and performs with its members’ hearts — namely lead singer and songwriter Judah Akers’ heart — worn fully naked on their sleeves. But it also seems as if they’ve taken that posture to a new level on Pep Talks. It’s as if they’ve decided that whether or not you like their band / their sound / their style, there’s no ignoring the music, the lyrical themes, and the aforementioned emotional connection.
And if the listener has any personal experience with those themes, like yours truly, that listener will be hard-pressed not to be moved by what he hears.
So what themes dominate Pep Talks? Pain, hope, and, well, fun. Like I said, disorienting. But I’m not sure I could describe the last five to 10 years of my life any better myself.
During that time, I’ve moved out of town, been laid off twice, moved back to town, broken off an engagement, and undergone two knee surgeries. But I’ve also successfully changed careers, gained a sister-in-law and more than a half-dozen nieces and nephews, paid off my student loans, traveled several continents, grown immensely in the process — and generally had a blast all the while.
In other words, I’ve gone through my own “Quarter-Life Crisis,” and not only lived to tell about it, but I’d even say I’m better for it.
One of the keys to surviving and thriving throughout young adulthood, from my experience, is learning to be okay with imperfection, and in particular with the messiness of being unsure about things, even about the state of yourself.
The title of the fourth track on the album, “i’m ok.,” reads like an unconvincing text. The lyrics begin by detailing, “It's been a rough last couple of months / My aunt's gone and my parents divorced.” Then they proceed to insist, unconvincingly, “but I’m okay.” The theme repeats — even adding for good measure, “so please stop asking me” — until finally Judah relents and admits, “I’m not okay...but maybe that’s okay.”
Anyone who has lived in the social media era has surely dealt with the pressure to project perfection — or at least okay-ness — to the rest of the world. And anyone who’s successfully dealt with that pressure has learned to be okay with being not okay.
This takes many forms in my own life, from professional success and monetary stability to romantic #relationshipgoals to answering the most basic questions like, “Am I happy with my life?” But in particular it means living with open wounds that may never totally heal — and I’m not just talking about ACL repairs.
While my parents’ separation isn’t nearly as recent as Akers’ parents’, the fallout still remains, over a decade later. The pain isn’t fresh and it’s not nearly as intense or frequently felt, but it hasn’t gone away, and it probably never will.
I’ve learned to cope with the pain over time, though, and I’ve seen the fruit that has grown up out of it — growth that would never have existed without the pain in the first place.
But that growth isn’t automatic. It’s only possible by facing the tension of trying to move forward even without being perfectly healed. That’s not easy, and often times it means being vulnerable. And that’s why "Family / Best Is Yet to Come" stood out among all the other songs on the album.
The song begins with a cut-up of an emotional voicemail from Judah’s mother, reacting to listening to the album tracks for the first time. “I cried a little, I laughed a little...gee I loved it,” she said. “It’s real and raw...”
When I heard that song for the first time, I was moved. And even now for the 12th time, I still get the chills! Anybody who listens to it gets a privileged glimpse into the relationship between Judah and his mother, which is somewhat shocking in its transparency. Here we have spent all album listening to Judah spill his guts about the woundedness he feels as a result of his parents’ split, and then we hear his mother’s own voice, for crying out loud.
But it’s what his mother says that is the real kicker: “It gave me a lot of hope.”
Divorce — even from the outside — is depressing. But it’s just in those broken shards of our lives where music can have such great power. Judah and the Lion have a talent for gathering those shards into something beautiful. The band deftly deploys the Owl City-esque method of balancing serious lyrics with light-hearted progressions. The result is an overall sense of hope running through the album from beginning to end, as the melodies resolve even when the lyrics don’t always return the favor.
Sure, there are whimsical moments throughout the album, namely on tracks such as “sportz” and, perhaps to a lesser extent, “Passion Fashion.” But the vast majority of the 17 songs take you on this odyssey of intense, personal, and emotional lyrics set to fun, danceable music. And somehow it works.
Don’t believe me? Check out “Alright (frick it!),” perhaps one of the catchier and more upbeat tunes on the album that also happens to include whoppers like this: “A parent’s heartbreak is a child's demise / Of all the truth they knew inside / I don't really know what to do.” But then, before you know what just hit you, the song returns to the bridge followed by the chorus: “No matter how bad all this gets / I can't stop this voice in my head / This voice in my head says / We're gonna be alright.”
It’s as if Judah, with the help of his bandmates, decided to air out all his dirty laundry, embarrassment and awkwardness be damned, to show the rest of us that even life’s worst — even right in the midst of that worst — is not enough to destroy us. That even with all its pain and suffering and confusion, life is still worth living, that songs are still worth singing, and the best songs are danceable ones.
In the process, they gave me reason to believe that, just maybe, the best really is yet to come.