This is what happens when one of the biggest-selling artists in Christian music reworks the genre’s first landmark album. Larry would love it.
Label: Old Bear Rec Reissue
Time: 10 tracks / 39 mins (+ bonus track on vinyl)
Dealing with whether to re-record Larry Norman's Only Visiting This Planet straight or reinvent it, the ex-dc Talk singer walks a fine line. He respectfully keeps the original’s spirit, but randomly updates some sounds and references. Some of the songs are embedded in their original era – “Six O’Clock News” is a response to the Vietnam war and “Reader’s Digest” features artists from its time like the Beatles and Hendrix, as well as featuring the line, “It’s 1973, I wonder who we’re gonna see”. The former sees the litany of TV networks updated to include Fox and God TV, while the air steward announcement ends with the note that “We’re all in this together – presumably a Covid reference. In the latter, Max changes Janis Joplin to Kurt Kobain and Russia to Japan.
Newcomers may be surprised to find songs about how faith addresses the whole of life: sex, addictions, politics, war, racism, culture, hypocrisy and nationalism for starters, with dedication to Jesus being the answer to our spirits’ hunger. I’ve yet to hear a better song written about Jesus’ life than “The Outlaw.”
Those who already love Norman’s classic album should find plenty to enjoy in this re-creation, including some choral backing vocals in “The Outlaw,” with its shuffling percussion; a far fuller sound clothing the sharply pointed protest song “Great American Novel;” and the way that an energized “Righteous Rocker #1” sits on top of a ‘70’s glam drum chassis – those with Max’s Serve Somebody EP will know the treatment. However, there will be much frustration that Max beheads the emotional “I’ve Got to Learn to Live Without You” after just 91 seconds.
He refrains throughout from overdoing his distinctive vocal vibrato and seems completely at home in these songs.
One example of this spirit of well-crafted tribute is the way that “Why Don’t You Look into Jesus” now rolls along on a funky guitar riff that must be an affectionate nod to Bowie’s “Fame” (while the bass sometimes feels like a nod to “Walk on the Wild Side.”)
The iconic, but theologically slim, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” is only available on the vinyl version, but added across all formats is the very worthwhile “God Pt. IV” – Max’s own continuation of the Lennon, U2, Norman song conversation:
“I don’t watch TBN or CNBC
Don’t believe in FOX or MTV
I won’t be going to your mega church
‘Coz prosperity gospel doesn’t work
I don’t believe in guns or building walls
We’re just visiting this planet after all...
I don’t believe in fear or terrorists
I don’t believe in fascists/nationalists, but I believe in you.
Part of the inspiration for Max recreating this collection is that way that wanted a new generation to hear what they were missing, as American CCM radio stations have whitewashed out early music from their schedules. He’s done a great job and we can only hope for some results. It take a little while to get used to the newer treatments, but Norman would surely have loved it.