For many bands and music artists, the pandemic, as terrible as it was, had a silver lining. Because concert venues were closed, they had the opportunity to write and record new music without the deadline pressures that usually exist. With no clear indications of when touring might again be possible, they had multiple months or longer to focus on their creativity and thoroughly consider the kind of music and messages that would inhabit their next album or other musical statement.
This luxury of time has resulted in a good share of strong albums that have been released over the past two years, as the world has reopened.
In the case of For King & Country, though, the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic brought an urgency to both the songwriting and the content of the album that was created during this period, “What Are We Waiting For?”
“It’s been rare for me that I have been punched in the face as aggressively as I was on the night of Dec. 22, 2020,” Joel Smallbone said in a mid-April phone interview. “It was about 3 a.m., I was laying in my bunk on a tour bus in South Florida. It was (before) the final show of about 60 drive-ins that we had just done. And there was still so much uncertainty as to where we were going from here on every level. As musicians, maybe this is it. Maybe no one will ever step foot in a venue again. And it was this very clear punch in the nose of it’s time to go. You’ve got something to write about. We didn’t obviously know all of the phraseology and the specifics, but we knew the sentiment.
“You would think there’s this very like ‘Oh OK, we’ve got time (to write and record). We’re not on the road,” he said. “What it actually did for us is we went this is the only way we have to communicate. This is the only language we can use for the people. We can’t travel in the same way. We can’t look at people in the face, physically. We’re looking through windshields and they’re using car horns for applause instead of clapping their hands. And so this, going into 2021, going into the future, the only way we could really communicate was by putting together 39 minutes of music that tells them the story of what our perspective has been through this journey. So we hit that ground running in 2021 really hard.”
What resulted was an album that houses the most topical song cycle yet from brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, wrapped together with a few highly personal songs and concluding with some thoughtful ideas for how to move forward as human beings in a world that has grown divided and contentious in recent years.
The table gets set by “Relate” (about recognizing our flaws and ups and downs in life) and “Broken Halos,” a song Smallbone said is about prejudice and trying to find our way “back to the original design of what it means to be human.” The album then delves into songs that deal with acceptance (“Love Me Like I Am”) questioning where is God when bad things to happen (“For God Is With Us”) and personal territory with “Hold On Pain Ends” (promising a close friend to believe in better times ahead) and “Unsung Hero” (a tribute to the Smallbones’ mother) before finishing on a hopeful note with “Together” (about unity and overcoming adversity) and “Benediction” (a pledge to live in the way God intended).
It’s not just some of the lyrical scope that makes “What Are We Waiting For?” a unique entry into the For King & Country catalog. It stakes out its own musical territory as well, as the Smallbone brothers pivoted from the organic, live-in-the studio approach of their 2022 holiday album, “A Drummer Boy Christmas.”
“Musically we dedicated ourselves to being very sort of synthesizer and program heavy on this one. We wanted it to have a little bit of an ‘80s flare,” Smallbone said. “There were a few exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, we leaned on drum machines and synthesizers and sort of really for a band and a duo, out-of-left-field musicality just to push us into a musical corner and sort of approach things in a new way. And that was frustrating and funny and fun all at the same time.”
The sonics don’t alter the epic, rhythmically assertive and melodic pop-rock sound that has characterized the duo’s music, beginning with their 2012 debut album, “Crave.” While leaning more toward mid-tempo material and ballads, the album’s synthetic instrumentation mainly just softens the edge on mid-tempo songs like “Broken Halos” and “Shy,” while putting a pleasant sheen on ballads like “Love Me Like I Am,” “Unity” and “Unsung Hero.”
What also made the “What Are We Waiting For?” project different – aside from navigating COVID protocols – was the vocal problems Luke Smallbone experienced. About midway through the project his voice gave out and he required vocal surgery to correct the issues.
Fortunately, with the help of Shure sm7 microphones, which could be used in any physical setting, there was a fallback option for many of Luke’s vocal parts.
“When Luke lost his voice, we were able to pull up all of these beautiful vocals that we had from writing sessions and so on and use a lot of them in the ingredients of what ultimately became ‘What Are We Waiting For,” Joel Smallbone said. “So that was a really key part to the vocal story of the album.”
Luke is back in good voice now, as For King & Country return to the road. The live show will, of course, include songs from “What Are We Waiting For,” but it will also touch on the three previous albums from For King & Country, albums that have quickly established the duo as one of Christian music’s most popular acts.
“Crave” got things off to a solid start by reaching No. 4 on “Billboard” magazine’s Christian Albums chart. Then the 2014 follow-up, “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.,” broke things wide open, topping the Christian Album chart and producing two No. 1 singles on “Billboard’s” Hot Christian Songs chart – “Shoulders” and “Fix My Eyes.” Things culminated with the album winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. “Burn The Ships,” released in October 2108, also won the Grammy for Best contemporary Christian Music Album, topped the Christian Album chart and added four hit singles, “Joy,” “Amen,” “Burn The Ships,” and “God Only Knows” (a Grammy-winning collaboration with Dolly Parton) to For King and Country’s growing list of top 5 hits. “What Are We Waiting For” has been another successful album, so far producing the hit singles “Relate” and “For God Is With Us” and topping “Billboard’s” Christian Album chart.
The current show features two sets, with an intermission in the middle, allowing for a generous song selection. The first set focuses on unity, family and other social/personal issues and relationships, while the second set is more spiritually based.
“Man, I’m so proud,” he said of the show. “What I’ve gotten back from folks on social media, from our team, in general, is there’s a spiritual potency to the second half of the night that feels like a bear hug, no matter where you come from religiously, socially or ethnically and so on. It feels very loving.”