Ed Kowalczyk: Alive (2010)

Ed Kowalczyk: Alive (2010)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Overview

Though I first discovered them at the age of twelve, Live has defined the first half of my twenties. Their spiritually-charged lyrics move souls unspecific of creed yet remain ambiguous enough to keep them from being branded into some contemporary religious musical genre. Live has been famous for portraying and celebrating life, both spiritual and mortal, using the image of water as a recurring theme in their songs. Their albums have been successive explorations of spirituality seen through the lenses of different religions, an act of embracing the general notion of belief. Of course, the topic of spirituality is ultimately a question of taste.

Unfortunately, the celebration of spirituality through their music said little of the band’s spirit. Following a stint of radio silence, what was meant to be a two-year hiatus for the purpose of pursuing other projects turned into a permanent and ugly split. Former frontman Ed Kowalczyk went solo, whereas the other members collaborated with another big act from the nineties to form The Gracious Few. Though now completely separate acts with distinctively different sounds, it’s hard to put aside the fact that they were once part of a band that contributed significantly to post-grunge music.

As a long-time fan, this review was relatively difficult to write. In fact, I deliberately put off posting about Ed Kowalczyk’s first solo album because of the musical politics that surround Live and the subsequent acts that emerged from the split. Not to mention, the politics itself is extremely obvious. It’s hard to separate the artist from the art with so much sentiment floating around. I won’t say that I was successful at it myself. However, I feel that I am doing the album a disservice if I am not honest about what I think of it.

First Impressions

Based on first singles alone — “Grace” by Ed Kowalczyk and “Honest Man” by The Gracious Few — I preferred Kowalczyk’s single. “Grace” sounded more reminiscent of the Live sound I’ve long loved, and it carries on for the rest of his summer release, “Alive”. Live, Alive, A-live — no, the irony in the album name is not lost to me.

Live has long spent dodging the spiritual label. But this time around, Kowalczyk, a baptised Catholic, has openly embraced Christian-based religiosity when approaching the materialisation of the album. Not that he hasn’t done it before. Live’s 2003 release, “Birds of Pray”, easily betrayed the band’s gravitation towards Christian imagery at that time. Unsurprisingly, “Alive” has been picked up with much fervour from various contemporary Christian music outlets, branding it as “Christian” or “contemporary religious”. Though my own religious upbringing is pretty similar to Kowalczyk’s, I still hold a pretty traditionalist suspicion towards contemporary religious music in general, so I don’t know what to feel about this categorisation. Perhaps time will allow me to solidify my stance, especially with regards to how and where Kowalczyk will take his new solo career.

Track List Run-Down

  1. Drive: The first track is a solid introduction to the album that starts off softly. Just like the title implies, it calibrates the gears and sets the speed for the entire record.
  2. The Great Beyond: Quickly accelerating, this number is catchy, with fast drum sequences that guarantee toe tapping right from the first few seconds.
  3. Grace: The first single was presumably hinted, however subtle, when Kowalczyk asked his Twitter followers what they individually defined as “grace”. Openly religious in approach, the charismatic song “Grace” is about faith and gratitude in times of tribulation. Based on the emotion behind Kowalczyk’s voice, the single seems to have been chosen strategically as a response to people’s questions over Live’s demise and the new musical directions undertaken by the other members. Though a strong song lyrically and a great listen, it is unfortunate the music video is dreadful.
  4. Stand: Aggressive drums and guitar riffs characteristic of the post-grunge genre are evident in this track. It coincides with the song’s theme of allegiance during moments of difficulty. Though it feels more personally connected to Kowalczyk’s experiences and — though just conjecture — an appeal to his fans not to abandon him in spite of recent events, this is one of my favourite tracks in “Alive”.
  5. Drink (Everlasting Love): Water imagery galore. Once more, I stumble upon an album in which Chris Daughtry is involved. However, instead of singing alongside one of his musical influences, Daughtry gives the musical kiss of life as a songwriter. Melodically beautiful, this song can be comparable the song “Heaven” from their album “Birds of Pray”.
  6. Zion: Though slightly zen-like with the background singing, Kowalczyk’s singing in “Zion” is a nostalgic throw-back to the raw sound of Live in the early nineties.
  7. In Your Light: A song about counting one’s blessings, “In Your Light” quickly reverts back to the anthem-like yet radio-friendly sound Live left behind before the band expired.
  8. Just in Time: An up-beat number, “Just In Time” is loaded with religious imagery, focusing primarily on the transformation of ordinary objects into meaningful artefacts.
  9. Rome: If there is another theme aside from water that encompasses this album and much of Live’s musical output, it is woman. Unspecific of their perceived image, the presence of a woman in major religions is undeniable. In the true Live-sian way, the woman is revered as a source of strength and life. It doesn’t take much extrapolation in looking at the song title and making a wild guess on who that woman may be. But perhaps Kowalczyk is much more indirect about it in this instance.
  10. Soul Whispers: This number is almost meditative, if it didn’t sound so haunting at the same time. “Soul Whispers” begins softly, but crescendos towards the later part of the second half, just loud enough to portray to what seems to be the purging of personal demons followed by an exodus from the past.
  11. Fire on the Mountain: “Alive” ends on a hopeful note. A serene end to the album as evidenced by the mellow guitar and drums, “Fire on the Mountain” is a neat closing number. This is probably the only track of “Alive” in which raw emotions take precedence, as though Kowalczyk is implying that with all the events that have transpired, he has made peace with it all.

Verdict

A lot of the media coverage and reviews about this album like to emphasise on Ed Kowalczyk’s musical re-birth, but I think the verbal play on the album title “Alive” has been long exhausted. But “Alive” does not disappoint. Live fans grieving over their split and are still pining for the comfort of their trademark sound will be able to find exactly that in the album.

On a design note, I do hope that the art direction of his merchandise improves. Unless this is a deliberate move by Kowalczyk himself, I firmly believe that aesthetically, his album covers and music videos deserve an upgrade in design quality. This is an area where The Gracious Few currently have the upper hand.

All in all, “Alive”, with enough merit as it is, carries more than enough potential for mind-blowing successive albums. Kowalczyk put a well-placed step in the right direction.

5 Comments

  1. Maria Celina

    @Abby: My issue with Contemporary Christian Music, Abby, is the fluffiness, like you said, but also the fact there is a fine line between the worship aspects (which I assume is the supposed underlying purpose of CCM in the first place) and self-righteous, preachy lyrics (which shouldn’t be the purpose of such a genre). When it crosses that line, I find that sense of religious entitlement off-putting and takes away from the central message of Christ. I tend to adhere to the traditionalist perspective of preferring the Christ-centred focus of Church-sanctioned music, and what I like about Kowalczyk’s album is that it’s not blatantly religious, but in fact has just enough of that theme in metaphors and recurring themes. It makes the album accessible to those who do not subscribe to Christianity.

    @Charles Ravndal: Charles, I hope that you can find the album. His last name is Polish in origin, if I am not mistaken, but if you were musically aware in the nineties, particularly during the post-grunge era, his name and his band could likely be familiar to you.

    And yes, I have a GoodReads account. I believe we’re already connected.

  2. Abby

    Sounds really cool! I’m a Christian myself, but I always become really skeptical towards contemporary Christian music. So much of it tends to be so fluffy nowadays, and I dislike that. I think I’ll check out this album.

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