Nightlights is the third album from Jimmy Needham after his underappreciated 2006 debut Speak and his improved 2008 follow-up Without Love. Though he seems to be slowly building a following with each passing year, he’s still relatively unknown in Christian music.
For the uninitiated, Needham is essentially Christian music’s answer to Jason Mraz, Marc Broussard, and Kris Allen—organic pop with a some slight jazz and soul influences. To be clear, Needham isn’t quite as good as his comps, but he’s still good enough. Besides, the way things are going in Christian music these days, when a songwriter draws on the deep theological works of Charles Spurgeon and A.W. Tozer, that’s enough reason to take notice.
In recording Nightlights, Needham appropriately turned to producer Calvin Turner (Marc Broussard) to better explore his funk/soul influences (e.g. Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke). As a result, he is one step closer this album to matching the quality of Mraz, Broussard, and Dave Barnes. “Grace Amazing” stands out the most sonically as a collaborative effort with acoustic pop artist Shane Barnard and rapper Trip Lee—it’s the funkiest track on the album and features a lot of background rapping (which gets a little annoying with the constant interjections from Lee).
If only the rest of the album were as musically notable. Nightlights just isn’t that varied stylistically, offering a lot of pleasant, soulful pop that would have benefitted from more melodic hooks and instrumental differentiation. It all sounds good, but one song tends to sound a lot like another.
Where Needham does distinguish himself, however, is his intelligent approach to Christian songcraft. “Road to Zion” is a clever metaphor for the journey from law to grace, dating back to the establishment of the Ten Commandments. I wish Needham had better explained Spurgeon’s sermon “Law & Grace” (the inspiration for the song) in his lyrics, but this is still a great example of creative Christian lyricism. Likewise, a rousing Amen to “Part the Clouds,” which takes aim at fluffy Christian lyrics: “Living water will not quench us if it’s watered down.” Said differently, God’s Word deserves better.
Needham also excels at finding new ways to express timeless Christian truths. “Being Small” is a personable way to restate how we must decrease for Christ to increase. The bouncy lead single “Yours to Take” cleverly plays much like a love song, yet builds on the idea in 1 Corinthians 6 that we were bought with a price and are no longer our own. “Miss a Thing” demonstrates how God sees all the brokenness in our world, and that he responds to it through us and our relationship through Jesus. And “Right Where You Are” takes inspiration from Tozer’s The Pursuit of God
to explain how knowing God involves an active relationship, not just Biblical details.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is an album built on the idea that our life is not about the promotion of self, but the promotion of God to the world. Needham’s soulful ballad “The Reason I Sing” is essentially the thesis of Nighlights, summarizing this theme while noting that he’d be happy to have a small audience if it meant that it helps God’s kingdom in a small way. The album’s title is explained there as well as the spoken word ending (now a tradition for Needham established on previous albums): if we shine brightly, we’re still nightlights compared to the sunshine of God.
Like his previous albums, Needham also offers love songs to his wife, including “Steal Away,” which recalls the work of Dave Barnes and James Morrison. There’s an upbeat cover of the classic “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”—a good pick, though a tad obvious, especially since the similar sounding Kris Allen has also covered it. The best of the bunch is “Light of Day,” expressing the need to keep marriage rooted in Christ when weathering the storms in life; it’s the love song that has the most to say on this album.
Needham is a clever wordsmith who could still benefit from some more seasoned songwriting—a little more wit and imagery, a little less of the straightforward ruminating. And his music could similarly benefit from a little more sophistication and nuance. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that Needham isn’t more recognized as an artist. As one of Christian music’s best-kept secrets, he’s a songwriter with something interesting to say, and an enjoyably soulful pop sound to match.
Standouts: “The Reason I Sing”, “Moving to Zion,” “Grace Amazing”