It’s been quite a long time since Dustin Kensrue, primarily known for being the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of Thrice, has put out a proper solo album. In 2007, he released Please Come Home, a folky, country-inflected acoustic offering that was remarkably different from Thrice’s material. In the interim between then and now, his output has consisted of a Christmas album in 2010, and a Christian Worship album, The Water & The Blood, in 2013, but nothing that resembled a proper follow up to his debut release. Dustin himself even put some distance between The Water & The Blood and his regular solo work, stating his intention to record something more secular and in line with Please Come Home after its release. And that album has finally arrived in the form of Carry the Fire, coming a full eight years after its predecessor.
That said, with such a big gap in between releases, Carry the Fire feels incredibly familiar and cozy. While it’s not quite as acoustically based as its predecessor, its feel is still very similar. Most of the music here is based around simple strummed chord progressions, acoustic backings and lightly distorted leads, the occasional flourish of piano, and a much more restrained vocal performance from Dustin (a performance that sounds much less gruff and strained than he has in recent years). This coziness is also supplied by the fact that, unlike in Thrice, Dustin is not quite as musically adventurous by his lonesome – most of the songs on Carry the Fire stick to similar tempos, instrumentation, and lyrical ideas. This is what causes that familiarity to come off as something negative, because as it stands, Carry the Fire ends up being a bit too much like a more produced and polished version of Please Come Home. This willingness to stick to the middle ground makes a short album feel longer than it really is, and the songs eventually start to bleed together. And where Dustin’s lyrical ability was one of the main draws of Thrice, at least personally, here he relegates himself almost entirely to writing love songs. It’s not as if he lacked for source material, after all of the drama that came from him first becoming a pastor at Mars Hill Church, then stepping down after coming into contact with the organization’s shady characters and ungodly practices. In light of this, it makes the fact that song after song retreads over the same theme of devoted love and family stand out like a sore thumb. And while that’s certainly one of the most rewarding and fulfilling feelings one can have in life, and it’s hard to begrudge the man for being so enamored with it, it doesn’t make for exciting music when it functions as the main pillar of an album. This feeling of contentment is one of the reasons that the album sticks so close to its established blueprint, because for an album entitled Carry the Fire, there’s not a whole hell of a lot of it.
Though I’ve just spent the better half of this review assailing this new album, that’s not to say that it is entirely without highlights. “Gallows” has an energy akin to one of Thrice’s more heavy tracks thanks to the foundation its distorted bass riff lays. And “Of Crows and Crowns” has finally found itself laid to tape after years of being performed as part of Dustin’s solo sets, and it sounds as good as it ever did (if not better for the addition of little flourishes of piano sprinkled throughout). And the title track, “Carry the Fire” is one of the most emotionally charged tracks on the album. Exhibiting dynamics that much of the album doesn’t, it builds up from its initial slow burn into a rousing chorus, finally letting Dustin unleash his voice on an album mostly free of such opportunities. But the reason why Carry the Fire is such a letdown is because, simply put, Dustin can do better than this. With being part of one of the best rock discographies of the 2000s under his belt, and an excellent solo debut in Please Come Home, he’s proved himself as an amazing songwriter time and again. But his writing hasn’t been quite the same since Thrice’s hiatus, and his Worship music debut. Dustin admitted that he focused more on writing simpler hooks and songs so that his congregation would be able to follow along with them more easily, a point he made sure to underline with that album’s release, but it doesn’t seem like he’s quite left that mode yet. While the songs are no longer about God, their structures and melodies could easily fit on The Water & The Blood. And ultimately, this simplicity in both lyric and form is what makes Carry the Fire a listen that, while good enough on its own merits, is not a compelling or even particularly unique release in full view of the man’s past work. And ultimately, from the frontman whose band made a career out of trouncing expectations and following their muse into whatever new sound or idea caught their attention next, that’s a problem.
KEY TRACKS: Back to Back, Gallows, Of Crows and Crowns, Carry the Fire