98. Devotion – Undercover
The early 90’s saw the demise of Frontline Records. Yet it would be several years before the birth of Tooth and Nail. Christian music was filled with horrific “chick pop” and hair bands that didn’t know a new decade had dawned. Rap was in its infancy and no where near the authentic form it is today. Quite frankly Christian music was in its “sucky years.”
Really great albums were few and far between and Point of Grace and Avalon were becoming the household names. Even the rock and alternative scene’s seemed to be further underground than normal and a few years behind the times. The 77’s were pretty much shopping for a label with every release and Charlie Peacock was producing other people rather than himself, except once every few years.
But right in the middle of the early ’90’s doldrums came Undercover’s “Devotion.” After the intensely dark and difficult “Balance of Power,” Undercover found the light at the end of the tunnel and came out rocking with their best foot forward. Heavy, yet creative and some smoking guitar and drums. This would sadly be the last album featuring what is know as the “best” Undercover line-up. In fact, the follow-up release, Forum, is difficult to even call an Undercover album given the radical line-up changes and lack of cohesive band.
Songwriting responsibilities once again fall into the hands of keyboardist and band leader, Ojo Taylor. Gym Nicholson plays his best guitar, Gary Olson remains on drums and lead vocalist Sim Wilson is less operatic and dark and much more rock vocalist here. Think more Axl Rose and less Jim Morrison.
But with “Devotion” there is a sense of urgency and artistic freedom that oozes out of every song. Without falling into the grunge trap, the band rocked hard without any punk leanings, but also no angsty, doesn’t life suck mentality. That’s not to say there are no expressions of difficulty, darkness or struggles, but rather there is more of a sense of hope here than on the previous.
Oh yeah…and the album just totally kicks ass!
“Work It Out” kicks off the album with a vengeance. The high maintenance lifestyle found in Ojo Taylor’s Southern California home takes the bite of criticism here. A sense of futility arises as the simplicity of life is crowded out in a me first world.
“Man, Oh Man” is a real highlight on this album. From the best produced drums in Undercover’s history to the added brass section (with help from Rob Watson) and driving rhythm this is one to put the top down and hit the gas with. The song asks Adam “what was he thinking” when he used to walk in the cool of the evening with the lord and yet still rejected this lifestyle for one of sin.
“Sea of Tranquility” sports a sexy GnR type rock and roll from the gutter hipness. Groovy and heavy without sounding cliched at any time. Nicholson’s lead is a bit too far back in the mix but still a great work. The slowed down bridge fades into an acoustic piano the leaves the message of loss haunting the listener. Brilliant musical arranging there.
I don’t know why, but for some reason “purple Flower” reminds of the heavier Mad at the World sound that was also being released at the time. The wah wah guitar mixed with the restrained vocals and pounding rhythm just work though. A love song of sorts (not the kind normally associated with CCM) the song speaks like the Song of Solomon to both the physical and spiritual realities simultaneously.
The title track possesses some of the darkest musical expressions on the album with the heavy groove and more difficult content. Wilson’s voice is also a bit darker and hearkens back to the previous album a little more. But it works given the difficult content of loss and desiring truth. perhaps looking at the Church from the perspective of the women whose only desire was to touch the hem of Christs garment. How does the Church treat those in similar situations in today’s culture?
“Promenade” sounds initially like a Dylan tune from the late 60’s with a call to community and unity. Terry Taylor helps with the vocal arrangements and one doesn’t need to read the credits to recognize that. This could have been one of those songs where the audience sways back and forth with upraised lighters swaying in unison. In some ways it feels out of place, while it also seems to fit perfectly.
The more pop driven “Where I Should Be” follows. The theme of longing for belonging remains here. Again this is also how the album separates itself from the previous release. There is more of a sense of hope and that the twinkle in the eye will return. Wilson gets a bit more rock and roll here and it works as the song closes.
“Dark Night” again expresses the tension of both the spiritual and physical realities in human relationships, especially those of an intimate situation. The “water” expresses this commonality.
Terry Taylor helps out again in “All That I Am.” The song is limited lyrically with only 8 lines making up the entire content. But the truth and the presentation contained within the 4 plus minutes is spell binding. Taylor’s vocal arrangement helps carry the song and Nicholson’s restrained and tasteful bluesy guitar work seals the deal.
“So Wonderful” closes the album with a beautiful song of freedom and release. I wish I knew the story behind the song as it is dedicated to Rose, but I am not familiar. perhaps the back story would help with the review, but the song itself is stunning. A great keyboard created string arrangement supports a song where Wilson’s voice is at its very best. The chorus is just beautiful and bring this amazing to a hopeful and encouraging close.
This will not be the last Undercover album to grace the Top 100, but when it was released it was the most important and possibly best thing going in CCM.