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Image from DavidArchuleta.com

David Archuleta’s new release Orion isn’t the fluff of bubble gum pop he stumbled (or was produced) into during his post-American Idol phase. And it isn’t dripping, either, with what followed during his more religious, Mo-Tab-collaborating/mission phase. And, no, it’s not another Christmas album.

No, Orion, an EP with four songs, is straightforward, sincere pop music. If you like other pop stars like Charlie Puth, Katy Perry, Andrew McMahon and others of that vein, Archuleta’s latest offering is not just good, it’s actually really great. And it’s ponderous…which isn’t to be confused with ponderizeicious—which we all know is a cross between pondering, memoriz(ing) and deliciousness, which you can get on a t-shirt, here.

A New Sound For Old Fans

To be sure, it’s not just David who has left his pre-mission “crush” and graphic tees behind. His fan base has grown up with him as well, providing what ought to be a fertile ground for his new sound to develop. And Orion may prove to be a harbinger of a new Archuleta phase, full of appealing, well produced pop songs that sit firmly in the canon (if a little more ‘easy listening’), but offer a reflective journey of self discovery and personal meditation.

It occurred to me that maybe I can actually write about what I’m really going through instead of teenage love songs because that’s what people want to hear

In other words, David has grown up. The lyrics in Orion are mature, meaningful, and deal with serious introspection and an existential outreach to the divine, illustrated with phrases like “I want to feel redemption’s hand” and “something out there’s on my side,” in just one of the songs.

The singer spoke at length with Billboard, recounting the epiphany of what led him to write the EP’s first single, “Numb,” noting that in the wake of returning home from his mission and facing the question of whether or not he still wanted to be a recording artist, “It occurred to me that maybe I can actually write about what I’m really going through instead of teenage love songs because that’s what people want to hear.”

While the jury may be out as to just how many people want to hear it, the departure from the basic love song pop ballad is more than apparent. It’s like he’s been “Up All Night” (the title of another track) reading Romans 8 and wondering how to use the Spirit to turn his “groanings” into spiritual messages that resonate within the mainstream of popular music culture. And by all observable accounts, he’s basically succeeded.

YouTube commenter Bellavita Rox wrote, “I can feel the emotion, the message, it really moves me. Your music has helped me overcome many hardships in my life over these past several years […] I began listening at age 14 and I am now 23. God has used you in ways you don’t even know. Thank you for the gift of your music[.]”

The Sound And The Fury

Another YouTube commenter, Robert Redmond, observed that in the video of the EP’s first track, “Numb,” Archuleta appeared “…confident, no longer boyish but a young man, seems radically more comfortable in his skin, still passionate, looks determined to live his life mission of encouragement to others in music.  I always appreciate seeing growth, especially in a season of life so many get lost in.

The release is definitely a proclamation, exhibiting a little bit of a narrative arc in the same way Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, or Green Day’s American Idiot did. (Although it’s worth noting that the latter is decidedly much more of a concept album.) Though it’s only four songs, there’s a thread of purpose throughout and a kind of theme that pulls through each song, unraveling a creative pursuit that exposes raw nerves, open questions, deeply held beliefs, self-doubts, bright hopes and a firm resolution. It’s deep stuff, man!

But this new music doesn’t use “deep thoughts” as its currency. What makes this EP successful is simply that it feels real. It’s the honesty, which is so readily observable in the music that endears the listener. In another YouTube comment, SoreWaSore says,

I just love the fact that this song, and this video, feels very personal. Personal in a way that’s reflected where David Archuleta is the only person in this video, surrounded by a sort of ‘raw’ and ‘natural’ background; nothing flashy pops out. The fact that he’s alone in this MV and he’s singing this song about numbness and the difficulty to move on; how one has self-struggles where only they themselves can overcome it. Those scenes of him walking in solitary while singing his heart out until he’s out under the rays of the sun. It’s a simple video and I may be looking into it too much, but it just feels like there’s a lot of thought put into shooting this in order to suit the nature and message of the song.

Sacred Pop For A New Era

From feeling numb, to staying up all night, detached from the closeness of a connection to the divine, to calling for understanding that others may need some time away so they can “feel the sun shine on their face”, the messages in this EP can evoke the idea of taking a second chance with God when the going gets tough, but also signaling that it’s a deeply personal choice for him and that he gets and respects the journeys of others.

It’s as if he recognizes that sometimes a break from what you believe, or how you express that belief is something that needs to be revisited, calibrated, so that it doesn’t go stale, while admitting in the lyric “I’m not there, yet” he quickly adds “but I know, I don’t want to feel numb.”

In one sense, it’s sort of like the best EFY music you’ve maybe never heard(?), with one foot in that emotional/spiritually searching territory, and the other rooted in more mainstream riffs and production value. It’s as if this EP walked out of Deseret Book and into the city, but it stopped short of the night club, maybe to hold the door for Puth. In that regard it’s a far cry from other pop tunes that emote deeply (ironically?) about living large in the club while fretting over shallow romantic entanglements.

Orion is a personal anthem; It’s one of self-actualization where you can hear the artist allowing himself to, as they say in the writing profession, bleed on the page.

And I think what is interesting about this is that sometimes Mormons are stereotyped as a little too polished on the surface, a little too Stepford—reticent to reveal or admit doubts, imperfections, or anything that isn’t hunky dory. We can be accused of playing it a little safe—that is unless we’re bearing our testimony, then it’s tissues galore—but even then, it can be perceived as performative.

The Honesty Of Art

In art, there’s really an element of releasing vulnerability into the ether that is particularly powerful; and that’s especially true when its original work, which in this case, it is. By bleeding a little bit, showing some real emotion in a context that’s not testimony meeting, ends up really being testimony bearing in a bold way.

To that point, the YouTube commenter pastelpastelpastel wrote “David you blended your rich vocals, a great story and gorgeous production into this catchy song about being pensive and grounded at the same time.  Love all the interesting layers!  Lyrically and musically!  I listened with a coworker today on a road trip and it sounds fantastic in a car.  All your hard work has paid off.

What Archuleta seems to have cracked is the ability to channel an expression of belief, complete with all its tenuousness and hopefulness, into the vulnerability of musical expression. It’s a mature thing to do, and it’s not one that other LDS artists and celebrities like The Killers’ Brandon Flowers or even politicians like Mitt Romney have been able to do. Maybe it’s a “pearls before swine” kind of flu the others have, but David seems to have left that behind. Good. Because what ultimately is true is that whether his is your style of music or not, the kid, er… um… the man can sing.