Hard Love is an image of a Christian rock band spreading its wings and aiming outside its niche. More so than ever before, Needtobreathe find themselves tackling rock head-on and attempting to convey the message of devotion while mixing it in with a mainstream sensibility that keeps it accessible to a wider variety of listeners. It’s not a perfectly executed package: there are elements to the album that drag the package down as a whole, despite some great production on some key tracks. The production is inevitably what turns this into a more enjoyable experience.
The most awkward part of Hard Love is its lyrics. Most notably, their attempt at something subtle but seductive on Let’s Stay Home Tonight, where lead singer William “Bear” Rinehart denounces the need to leave the house, or even put clothes on, directed at a lover. While it’s awkwardly worded in its own right, it also leads straight into the album’s most religious moment, Testify, pinpointing the awkward taste left when trying to balance a mainstream approach and their religious undertones. The lyrics tend to fall somewhere between too forward or slightly off the mark across the album, though—another prime example being their denouncement of fame and riches on Money & Fame—and there’s a noticeable lack of commitment and emotion in the lyrics that leaves a lot of songs feeling flat and lifeless.
The arrangements, however, are the saving grace. The album’s title track Hard Love combines rock with just a little slice of synth accompaniment to give it a pop edge, which creates a meaty, substantial beat that recalls a fair few other popular rock bands, as Needtobreathe have been known to do, but works well for them. The mixture of jazz and soul on Money & Fame brings their southern twist back into the mix, and Happiness injects a healthy dose of gospel that meshes with the album while retaining its own identity, and also offering a slightly more subtle take on their religious undertones. The album’s closing end features a strange twist into brighter tracks that doesn’t feel quite as cohesive, and the introductory track Mountain, Pt 1 is a jarring moment to open the album on, but more often than not this is the part that Needtobreathe get right on the album.
Hard Love is a disjointed experience, with obvious highs offset by some noticeably poor choices in terms of lyrics and song placement that leaves a good first impression, but a less positive final opinion. Were it not left feeling so lifeless on many occasions, the weaker tracks could have ultimately picked up to a better place and made for a better-rounded album. Unfortunately, Hard Love isn’t Needtobreathe’s best work despite its moments of strength.