Review Summary: As inspirational and enjoyable as radio-rock gets.
If one were to create a list of the most critically reviled genres of music overall, post-grunge would be a suitable addition to accompany the likes of nu-metal and radio country. Regardless of your opinion of the genre, it’s clear that there is no critical darling at the forefront of post-grunge that gives them the respect that Nirvana gave to grunge, or that Arcade Fire give to indie rock. Foo Fighters are perhaps the closest thing that they have to a respected figurehead, but in terms of pure critical adulation they pale in comparison to the titans mentioned above. Post-grunge is seen by critics as a genre that panders to the radio, which consequently dilutes their music of both the energy and authenticity characteristic of the original grunge bands.
Lifehouse is a band whose music falls under the post-grunge and soft rock aesthetic, and while they aren’t quite in the same category of notorious punch-lines as their brethren Nickelback and Creed, over the years they have shown themselves to be no less radio friendly via substandard convention. By all accounts they should be deemed just another mainstream rock act that flashed up the charts and then crumbled into smoldering ash from listeners’ memories. Recognizing this, it gives me some pause for contemplation as to why I consider this, their debut, to be such a great album.
The simplest explanation is that "No Name Face" is an enjoyable collection of twelve well crafted and unabashedly sincere songs, and sometimes that’s all that you really need from music. The style here isn’t particularly genre bending; just a guitar, drums, bass, and the occasional studio instrument to give an extra flourish; playing out the usual verse-chorus-verse formula at a moderate intensity. These simple songs are back by the vocals of Jason Wade, who doesn’t have phenomenal pipes but makes up for it with charisma and the ability to convey emotion when needed. Overall though, there’s no question that this is radio-rock. If you’re looking for something experimental in nature, or you’re listening for things like unconventional song structure and influences, then this is not the record that I would recommend playing. But if you’re in the mood for some simple melodies and touching lyrics to wash over you, then you probably won’t be disappointed.
Of course, a set of solid songs isn’t enough on its own to make an album great; nor does it even necessarily make it very good. Not to mention that this album has some flaws: A good portion of the material is by technical definition “filler”. While none of it is bad or even mediocre (everything is pretty agreeable here), there are several songs that you would never seek out for individual play. And while the album flows nicely and every song has something pleasant to add, it’s not something as tightly interconnected as Kid A, where removing one relatively middling song would cause the entire thing to fall apart like a precariously built Jenga tower.
Ultimately though, there are a few things that "No Name Face" has going for it that allows it to stand out from the rest of its radio-hogging soft rock kin. The first x-factor here is just how inspiring the whole thing is. Call some of the songs on this album sappy, needlessly direct, even cliché; but when I listen to this album I always feel strangely content, and after it concludes I feel appreciative for the very air that I breathe. It could just be because of my young age, but the songs on this album have a nostalgic air to them; the guitar strings emulate beams of refracted light dancing through car windows from sepia colored summer skies. Lifehouse is often labeled as a Christian rock band, and to an extent they are, (the band is outspoken about their religious beliefs.) Since I’m a Christian this obviously doesn’t bother me, but for non-Christians that label can turn them off from Lifehouse’s music. The good news, however, is that Lifehouse takes the inspirational and life-affirming qualities that are prominent in Christian rock and presents them in a way that is universal. The themes found in "No Name Face" resonate regardless of one’s belief system; addressing angst (“Somebody Else’s Song”, “Cling and Clatter”), outward hostility (“Simon” and “Quasimodo”), and anxiety (“Unknown”, “Hanging by a Moment”), while providing the encouragement to brave an uncertain world via self acceptance and moral straightness. Bliss is another subject found in spades (“Breathing”, “Everything”), and on an album filled with questions and doubts, there always remains an appreciation for the blessings we’re granted.
The underlying thread tying it all together, both in terms of its inner turmoil and in its joy, is faith; whether in a religious sense or a human sense. Much of what Wade sings about could either be describing his connection with God, or with his connection to a meaningful person in his life (most likely a close lover.) On the hit single “Hanging by a Moment”, the chorus of (“I’m living for the only thing I know/I’m running and not quite sure where to go/I don’t know what I’m diving into/I’m hanging by a moment here with you”) can on one hand be interpreted as his clinging on to Christianity in hopes for salvation, but it can also describe the rush of being hopelessly in love and not knowing where that adventure will lead him next. “Unknown” pulls a similar trick with its chorus, (“I am falling into grace/to the unknown to where you are/And faith makes everybody scared/It’s the unknown/The don’t-know/That keeps me hanging on to you.”) The word “grace” obviously presents religious undertones, but the line itself also chronicles the trepidation one feels when sharing themselves so intimately with another person. Numerous songs here deal with themes of either religious faith or personal faith, depending on the perspective viewing them; possibly an interconnected metaphor on how Wade approaches both of these important aspects in a similar way. Whatever the case, the results are generally airy and beautiful, and always optimistic and sincere; uncharacteristic traits for the genre that it inhabits.
The other big x-factor here is much easier to explain: The high points on here are pretty dang good. I’m pretty sure that most everyone has heard the leading track “Hanging by a Moment”, considering how much it has been played on every radio and grocery store intercom for the past thirteen years, yet it still remains undeniable. Regardless of how much of a musical elitist you claim to be, once you hear that rumbling bass and those melodic strings opening the song, you can’t help but listen in and sing along. No song on the album hits its major themes of anxiety and bliss better than this three minute blast of pop perfection. Another blissful highlight is “Breathing”, which brings to mind “Something” by The Beatles in terms of its unabashed devotion and love for the individual that Wade is addressing, making it a gorgeous feel-good confession.
However, the two best songs on the album happen to be the longest. “Simon”, a six minute ballad where Wade calls out to someone who has been psychologically abused by their peers, is the most quietly devastating song on the record. It starts off with the sparse flickering of strings, like light bulbs sputtering off and on, and after the first seven seconds a melancholy guitar slips in through the cracks. For over half a minute, “Simon” is a wordless expression of someone who is at the end of their rope, walking down a city street at night, incapable of seeing any further light in their life other than those that are flashing somewhere in the distance. (“Catch your breath/hit the wall/scream out loud/as you start to fall”), Wade sings in almost a whisper, connecting with this person who has become so overwhelmed by life’s hostility. What proceeds is some of the best lyrical work on the album, as he both lifts up this victim of outward oppression and minimizes the bullies who have brought the victim to this level. Once Wade sings (“Refuse to feel/anything at all/refuse to slip/refuse to fall”), and the guitar explodes behind him, the piece transforms from a song of delicate, depressing beauty into an exhilarating counterattack against the abusers; using only the weapon of self-confidence as its defense.
However, there is one song on the album that stands well above the rest, and lifts No Name Face from being simply good to truly great. The closing song, “Everything”, is the perfect closer to the record, and is nothing short of epic. In some aspects it resembles “Simon”, due to its length and the way that it builds over time, yet “Everything” is the superior song. It is a song that begins in the void, and is sung as quietly as a prayer, addressing someone that is so vital to their existence that they would crumble without them. Whether this person is God or his dearest love is not disclosed, but it’s clear from the start that this entity is nowhere to be found, and as a result the first four minutes of the song exists in some ethereal plane of meaninglessness. A guitar and viola are both used here to create an atmosphere where this one true sense of happiness for the singer is gone, either abandoned or too far away for him to grasp, causing him to be completely lost in the dark world around him. And just when this glimmer of happiness has almost faded out of memory, a part of the singer finally snaps, driving him to regain this individual that means everything to him. (“‘Cause you’re all I want/You are all I need/You are everything/Everything”), he screams out, filling the void with light, fighting against the shadows. The final minute and a half is nothing less than a complete triumph of the soul that raises hairs all over your body, thereby wrapping the album up with Lifehouse’s most perfect victory. If you listen to no other song from this album, make it “Everything”, as even people who discount the band’s entire catalog have recognized its greatness.
I must reiterate that "No Name Face" isn’t the most ambitious record around, or the most original, or even the best. But as far as mainstream radio rock is concerned, you’ll be hard pressed to find something more inspirational and more enjoyable overall. It won’t be a staple in your listening collection, but when you’re with a friend and you want to enjoy every moment spent together, or if you need a simple breath of fresh air to help you feel alive, then this album is waiting here for you to give it a listen. It might be post-grunge radio rock, but don’t be fooled: This is no guilty pleasure, it’s the exception to the rule.
Recommended Tracks: “Everything”, “Simon”, “Hanging by a Moment”