"I'm talking to YOU!"
Those are the first four words of track #2 on John Schlitt's Unfit for Swine CD, and those four words sum up the fact that John had something to say when he made this album. It's clear that he had things on his heart to share. It's also clear that he felt comfortable using an array of musical styles to communicate his message... there's alternative-rock, conventional rock, pop, ballads, and even a song that sounds distinctly country. But no matter what genre of popular music John happened to be experimenting with on any given song, it's clear that he had no intention of just singing a few ditties and calling it a day. There is a sense of purpose that runs through the entire album.
The first track doesn't waste any time getting up to speed musically; "Save Me" is full throttle from the first riff. The verses, which remind me vaguely of Stryper's remake of the classic funk tune "Shining Star," compare the apostle Peter's experience of walking on the water but then needing the Lord's help to keep from sinking, to our own struggles every day to live our lives, a la good old Romans chapter seven. The second song, "God is Too Big," is musically an interesting contrast (more straight-ahead pop, as opposed to the alt-rock of the first track), but the first verse recalls the idea of life being like a "boat in stormy weather" from the first track. Living your life every day as Jesus commanded us to is a recurring theme on this CD which is well-represented in the first two tracks.
Track 3, "Can't Get Away," continues this train of thought, but comes at it from a different direction: the idea that no sin of ours can separate us from God's love. "In the closets of my mind, I have thoughts unfit for swine," John intones over the first of the weird sound effects with which the song is infused; the verses continue on to describe the many ways that we convince ourselves that it is OK to do something we know isn't right, but the chorus reassures us that we "can't get away, can't get away from [God's] love." The strangeness of the effects and the muted sound of the guitars do create a dark mood suitable for a song about flirting with something that is seeking to draw us away from Christ, but the song might have been better served with an all-out Alice Cooperesque creepiness instead of the 90's alt-rock ickiness. It's like it promises to rock out, but it never really does. It's a great song, though... maybe the coolest moment is when John wails, "THERE'S NO ESCAPING PARADISE!"... and the ending is positively eerie.
The most beautiful ballad on the CD is "We Worship You." It begins with a vaguely "Stairway to Heaven"-esque 12-string guitar intro, and continues on with lyrics that are reminiscent of Petra's song called "Prayer." The music builds slowly into a gorgeous worship song that would be welcome in just about any church service.
The next song, "Need I Remind You," starts out with muted falsetto vocals, but any gentleness present in the verses, which describe someone slowly becoming complacent in their Christian walk, is obliterated by the in-your-face chorus, which aggressively and almost indignantly demands, "Need I remind you that He's comin' back again someday?" There is a (probably unintentional) Petra influence on the lyrics, where John says that "It's hard to stand for the creed" (Petra had recorded a song called "Creed" about the Apostles' Creed), and then again where he declares, "It's said that sometimes it's so hard to know/if strong conviction is the way to go" (Petra had recorded a song called "Strong Convictions"). I don't know if the influence was intentional or subliminal, but it's interesting to note that after John singing them again and again in concert, those phrases turned up on his solo CD!
"Take You On" sounds a little weird for a title, but actually it works quite well for an autobiographical song by a person who played with a lot of the stuff that Satan had to offer, and then turned his back on it all for Jesus. The part that always gives me a chill is the three words that appear near the end of the first verse: "My destination, suicide." Lyrically the song almost comes from a nervous place; John knows that without Jesus he hasn't got any hope in the battle with the Devil, but WITH Jesus... not "alone any more"... he has every hope of winning the fight.
In fact, he is so changed by the fact that he isn't alone with his sins any more that he is now willing to offer a "Helping Hand!" This song is kinda funky, with some sing-along-with-me Collective Soul-inspired guitar on the chorus. Unfortunately for me, the line at the end of the chorus, "don't turn away this someone who cares" always makes me think of the old tell-off, "Here's a quarter, call someone who cares!" which would of course be pretty much the opposite of what the song is trying to say! But even with all lyrical hallucinations put aside, I still haven't figured out exactly what John is muttering at the end... it's not in the lyric sheet. Maybe John doesn't even remember himself at this point!
"There Is Someone" is the closest I've ever heard John Schlitt go to singing country. In fact, the track would probably fit in quite nicely on a modern country radio station, slide guitar and all. It's a simple ballad, and judging from the few times I've met John face to face, this song's lyrics are straight from his heart. "There is someone," he says, "who loves you just the way you are!"
After this quick foray into country music, John goes rock and never looks back; "I Killed A Man" and "Don't Have To Take It" are real rockers (or at least they do their best with the thin 90's guitars they are presented with). The long-time Petra fan would expect "I Killed A Man" to be similar to the Petra classic "Killing My Old Man," but in fact they two really aren't anything alike. The Petra track talks about killing "the old man," meaning the old sin-enamored self that continues to try to assert itself in our lives (really, it resembles "Can't Get Away" more than this song); "I Killed A Man" is talking directly about how our sins are actually what killed Jesus on the Cross. Musically, this song has a bit of a Petra influence: the background vocals play tag with the lead vocals on the verses the same way they do on Petra's "Praying Man." The music could have benefitted from the same Alice Cooper-style guitarwork that would have helped "Can't Get Away" sound a little less thin; some parts of this song almost sound like a few guitar tracks got accidentally left out.
Until I took the time to read the lyric sheet, just about the only word I understood from "Don't Have To Take It" was "HEY!!!" The verses are just about as close as John has ever gotten to rap, consisting of John sort of mumbling some vague stories about young people who just need the influence of Jesus in their lives to get their acts together. There's even a rap scratch record just before the guitar solo! The vocals on the chorus are (sort of) doubled with a lead guitar line and also heavily-processed through something, and the whole package becomes very hard to understand. The music rocks, maybe harder than anything else on the CD, and once I read through them I realized that the lyrics are very strong, but the bizarre production of the vocals is a real barrier to getting the point across. Even now that I know what the song is about, the main point of it, in my mind, is unfortunately reduced to, "HEY!!!"
There are several important themes that run throughout this CD... the work of Jesus on the Cross, the work we are supposed to be doing on Earth, and the forgiveness we are entitled to in Jesus when we mess it up. I disagree with a few of the musical directions taken on the CD (although at the time, they gave this CD a very up-to-date edge, which I'm sure was the main idea), but I can't disagree with the lyrics. I think maybe those strange, thin 90's guitars may have put off some of John's, and Petra's, fans... but give it a chance. This CD isn't Petra... it adamantly REFUSES to be Petra... but it's a great CD, and it deserves a listen.
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