Artist: Citizens (formerly Citizens & Saints)
Label: Citizens, in conjunction with Rainbow Records and Humble Beast Records
Genre: Indie Pop-Rock
Kicking off a U.S. Summer Tour, Citizens released their 4th studio album, Fear, at the beginning of May 2019. To say that I’ve been anxiously awaiting this album since I first discovered Citizens in 2014 is an understatement. The rawness of their lyrics and the refreshing harmonies they created with the previous album, A Mirror Dimly, had me hooked. Citizens’ members have a background in worship ministry, having once been on the worship team of Mars Hill where the band was originally formed. Their longing to use music to be close to God and experience His presence is evident in Citizens’ newest release, even more than the previous three albums.
Spiritual content: The band is a Christian band, so most spiritual content is directly related to Christ, even if the name is never specifically mentioned.
Violence: No violence, no curse words, a couple references to “blood” (“Forget the blood, just give it time” in the track “Out of Sight”)
Sexual content: None
Drug/alcohol use: None specifically, but since the songs are open to a lot of interpretation, some phrases could make listeners think of battling an addiction in some form.
Other negative themes: None that are specific. The album is about dealing with fear/anxiety so some of the imagery in the lyrics may be slightly unnerving, but only to those who are extremely sensitive to those struggles.
Positive Content: The language on this album is incredibly deep and emotional. It outlines the struggle of anxiety and/or grief that relates to so many of us. It is very encouraging, especially in the last three tracks.
In September 2017, Citizens signed on with the label Humble Beast. This was surprising since this label mostly features Hip Hop artists, like Jackie Hill Perry and Beautiful Eulogy. That signing made Citizens the first rock band to join the label, and Fear their first album with Humble Beast. On Fear, you can tell they are trying new things, experimenting with new techniques, and moving toward a more synth-pop sounds instead of just indie rock. This might be coincidental, or it might be influence from the new label. Either way it’s a nice change of pace, even if some prefer the indie rock more.
Right from the title track, we’re given a vision of how the lead singer, Zach Bolen, pictures himself in the midst of his pain. He begins talking about being locked inside a prison he created for himself out of good intentions and fear. The music is strangely reminiscent of an 80’s Sci-Fi movie. It’s haunting without slowly dragging and the chord progressions are melodic and major, sounding uplifting despite the emotional content. It works for the mood of the album.
The album art, red with seeming indentations or maybe puddles of water across it, leaves a lot to be desired. On a Facebook video posted by Zach, he explained that he wanted to leave these songs “open for interpretation.” Perhaps this extends to the cover art since it struggles to make a statement of its own. Otherwise, with so many bands who have already used the cliche “blank album cover” stunt it fails to resonate. Luckily, the ambiguous cover art is not indicative of the careful thought put into the music and lyrics.
Lyrics are the driving force on Fear. The imagery used illuminates the cages we create in our minds when we’re afraid. Inversely, the faith of the author shines brightly despite the struggle. While listening through the album, one can empathize with the author easily and understand how they are trying to reconcile faith and fear. Ultimately, it’s established that faith triumphs over fear, but it’s so important to experience the process. This album articulates the process wonderfully.
Each track has an individual sound, even while still using the synth and reverb throughout the album. The first half is a bit softer and sad. The lyrics refer to fear and anxiety while soft guitar, piano, and synth play in the background. At the second half it takes a turn, beginning to shine out the artists hopes of being redeemed and freed, from the weight of his past mistakes and the cage he built around himself. The rhythms pick up and echo back to the indie-rock roots Citizens has always leaned on.
The exception to this would be the second to last track “I Will Always.” While the song itself is slow and primarily piano driven, its beautiful lyrics remind us that no matter what negative things come our way God is always by our side and He will never leave us. The song starts with a melancholy tone, but quickly turns uplifting once you get into the bridge:
It’s a battle in my head
To believe I don’t need to architect
A fortress full of dogs
A defense that doesn’t last at all
It’s a funeral of sorts
I die each day for something more
This re-genesis in my blood
It’s the whispering voice of a holy dove
Zach, in a quote posted on the label’s website, states “You can share as much as you want about the Gospel on Biblical terms, but the true power of the Gospel comes from you telling your story.” This album tells a story. A story of how fear can take over our hearts and cover us in darkness. Fear has this ability to take your breath away when you didn’t know you were holding it. Fear is painful, often invisible on the outside, and debilitating. But there’s still hope, a way out, peace beyond all understanding to which we have been granted access. Citizens uses this album to be honest about the struggle with fear, and where to turn for hope and rescue. At the end of the album, the song “Take Heart” has a line straight from the Book of John:
“I have said all these things so that in Me, you’d have peace. In this world you’ll have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Citizens reminds us that in Jesus, we will have peace because He has overcome. “Take Heart” is an anthem for those who have forgotten that Christ has already conquered the grave and death. We can walk in victory because the war has already been won. This album is a reminder that we who suffer are not alone. Not only is this album evidence that other humans are dealing with similar thoughts or emotions, but it points back to the one who lived as one of us, yet died to know us and save us.
I appreciate Zach and Citizens for being open and honest on Fear. I would expect nothing less after listening to their other three studio albums. I highly recommend this album to anyone, especially those who deal with fear and feel alone or like there’s no help for them. The music is great and Zach’s voice is beautiful, but the lyrics are what makes this album stand out. Time to look on up and take heart.
The Bottom Line
Bottom line, the album is solid as a unique indie-rock/synth-pop combination and a great addition to Citizen's already stunning discography. It takes a real look at how our experiences and emotions can shape our faith and sometimes distract us from what God is trying to accomplish. This album reminds us that it’s okay to feel our feelings, but there must come a time where we hand them over to Christ and we stand in the victory He has given us.