Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thanks for the memories, Creed

Creed will always hold a special place in my rock-loving heart.

I know that this would no doubt cause some (okay, a lot) of rock critics and those with a more “refined” taste to snicker. I’m fine with that. In fact, I would join in with them, if it were any other band that are currently lumped under the umbrella term “post-grunge.”

I suppose it could have had something to do with timing. Back in 1998, I was a miserable freshman in high school. As with so many other teenagers throughout modern history, music was becoming a therapeutic balm that was helping me wade through the awkwardness and pettiness that defines teenagerdom. I would listen to the radio in my room for hours, particularly a rock station out of Iowa City called KRNA. I credit that station with exposing me to some of the best music that rock has to offer—everything from Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty to Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.

One day as I sat listening, a new song came on by an up and coming band called Creed. I still clearly remember listening to the song for the first time, and being blown away. Something about that song sounded different then any other song I had heard before, and it wasn’t the tune or a particular guitar riff. It had more to do with the feeling projected by the melody and lyrics. It felt earnest, deeply layered, and most importantly, spiritual. The lyrics spoke of the soul, intentions, and angst. Angst was nothing new in rock music, of course, but this was a different kind of angst—not torment caused by other people, but the torment caused by one’s own personal failings. The song deeply affected me, even though I didn’t know how at the time.

After discovering “Torn,” I later heard more of their songs, such as “My Own Prison,” “What’s This Life For,” and “One,” the latter two displaying the band’s versatility in being able to write about positive yearnings of the spirit as well as darker reflections. My Own Prison would become the second album I ever purchased, and I was soon obsessed with the band. I loved the growl of Mark Tremonti’s guitars, which at times buzzed with a satisfying rawness that didn’t sound overly-produced, and at other times rang out in clean, melodic riffs. I loved the laid-back yet powerful drumming of Scott Phillips, which was often content to be relatively sparse, but at other times would blast with power and speed at just the right moments. I’ll even admit that I liked Scott Stapp’s vocals, which most of the time sounded like he was singing through his nose. But he sang with feeling, and no one can deny the strength of his pipes.

What really set Creed apart in the end, and what I most loved about them, were their lyrics. They were often poetic, evoked Christian imagery and themes, and were always thought-provoking. “My Own Prison” explored the consequences of sin and the way in which it imprisons the soul. It then turns into a plea to the Almighty, complete with a vision of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and a name check of the Archangel Gabriel. “In America” delved into the fake freedom and immorality of our country, even going so far as to explicitly decry abortion. It includes such classic lines as “No one’s right and no one’s wrong in America.” “One” examined the frustration in wanting to change the world for the better yet feeling helpless. It goes on to suggest that our quest to become united is being hampered by political correctness. These were big themes for a rock band to sing about, and it excited me. My parents had recently converted to Catholicism, and I had come into the Church as well, mostly at my parents’ behest. My faith was very young and underdeveloped, but it was nonetheless there, and it was hungering for nourishment. Creed’s music was becoming that nourishment. The music itself was hard, aggressive, and energizing, in a way that I found to be the ultimate self-expression of freedom and something that spoke in particular to my teenage soul. Yet at the same time, the melodies and lyrics were both introspective and positive, both self-examining and compellingly God-aware, which spoke to my faith. It was a combination that I had never encountered before in a rock band.

But as with all good things in life, they must eventually come to an end, or in this case, a steady decline. And for me, that decline started rather quickly with Creed. Needless to say, when their next album Human Clay came out a year later, I bought it immediately, having only heard one of its new songs on the radio. I was disappointed. While the album had its moments, it didn’t grab me like My Own Prison had. For one, it suffered from a common problem that plagues the sophomore albums of bands who have a multi-platinum debut album—overproduction. There was a new sheen on the guitars, and the drums sounded overly crisp and too perfect. The rawness and immediacy that made their debut album so compelling was gone. What made matters worse, many of the songs themselves sounded painfully similar and tended to blend together. With some exceptions (notably “Higher” and “Wash Away Those Years”), the band sounded like they were trying to force out the earnestness and deep meaning through increasingly bombastic lyrics, backed by a whirlwind of intense guitars and drums, as if they felt pressured to prove that their first album wasn’t a fluke. What’s lacking is the honesty and simple songwriting of their debut.

Nevertheless, by the time their third album Weathered arrived in 2001, it was clear that Creed were on to something. They had managed to make their brand of spiritual/Christian-tinged hard rock mainstream. The group enjoyed hugely successful tours, over 20 million albums sold, and a Rolling Stone cover, and yet were a band that many loved to hate. They were justifiably seen as the band at the forefront of “post-grunge” rock, along with acts like 3 Doors Down, Staind, Fuel, and others. My interest in Creed had hugely waned by this time, but I still felt I had a connection to the band, albeit a complicated one. I was torn between respecting them for their Christian roots and making My Own Prison and loathing them for helping to pioneer a style of rock that I had grown to despise: the maddeningly formulaic post-grunge sound that had countless imitators who were dominating modern rock radio. All the same, I still got passing enjoyment out of listening to Weathered. Creed had added some variety to their overproduced sound, including strings, a different drum sound, even a Native American chant in one song. I now considered the band to be a guilty pleasure rather than an act to be taken seriously.

Things started to get rocky for Creed over the next few years, and even though I wasn’t an ardent fan anymore, I still couldn’t help but follow what was going on (I guess true love dies slowly). It became clear that Scott Stapp was becoming an alcoholic, as reports surfaced of alcohol abuse and a near suicide, as well as an infamous concert in Chicago where he appeared drunk onstage and slurred his way through the songs. Then in 2004, Creed officially broke up after Stapp’s bandmates could no longer stand his erratic behavior. By that time, the Creed albums on my CD shelf were becoming a bit dusty, as my musical taste was expanding to both old and new indie bands like the Pixies and Interpol, as well as revival acts like the Strokes and the Killers.

When I heard about Creed’s reunion earlier this year, however, a wave of nostalgia hit me, and I felt a small glimmer of hope: “Maybe they can regain their former glory!” Things looked even more hopeful when I read about how Stapp felt remorse for his past behavior, reconciled with his bandmates, and was eagerly creating music with them again. Was it possible that the band could rekindle the old magic and get back to their roots?

Alas, it was not to be. Full Circle, released this week, is without a doubt Creed’s worst outing. Every post-grunge cliché is hammered out relentlessly from start to finish: double-bass drumming, 80’s hair metal guitar solos, and a wall of distortion accompanying every chorus. Even Mark Tremonti’s signature guitar tones that make a Creed song instantly recognizable are gone. Most disappointing of all are Scott Stapp’s lyrics. So over the top, unsubtle, and completely devoid of insight are they that I found myself both cringing and giggling throughout the album, sometimes at the same time. “How is stepping back a move forward?” Stapp barks in “A Thousand Faces.” I don’t know, Scott, you tell me. In “Fear,” Stapp assures us that he is, in fact, passionate: “Feel the passion in my breath.” And in “On My Sleeve,” there’s apparently no debating where Stapp’s heart is, or if it’s a good idea to use all caps in the liner notes: “My heart is tattooed ON MY SLEEVE.” Frankly, I was stunned by such a sharp decline in lyrical depth from past albums. Despite my disappointment in the musical direction that Human Clay and Weathered took, I still found Stapp to be digging deep from time to time. On Full Circle, it’s as if he threw the lyrics together at the last minute, hoping that something profound would magically arise. So much for wisdom coming with age.

Still, I find that I keep coming back to My Own Prison, when Creed were young and restless, wrestling with God, themselves, and the world, and pouring it all into their music, pure and unadulterated. They took a miserable freshman in high school along for the glorious ride, and I will be forever grateful.

1 comment:

  1. * Dan, you best pun is in the line, "Things started to get rocky for Creed ..." Hopefully, things will not start to turn jazzy for Louis Armstrong.
    * My favorite part about Creed is its name, which includes a question: To all the band's listeners, "What is your creed?"