Judah & the Lion hit tremendous heights off their single “Take It All Back.” The song hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, and the band spent two years touring the song across the country.
It should have easily been the best years of the band’s life, but it’s never that easy, is it? In those years, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, Judah Akers, was privately dealing with extreme family turmoil. Divorce and alcoholism took over his time offstage, developing a distinct contrast between his career and personal life.
The changes in Akers life are bravely used as the substance of the band’s new album “Pep Talks.” It is a stark change from their sophomore project, “Folk Hop n’ Roll.”
The previous project had mostly been about introducing their sound to the masses. It was plucky folk music with positive messages about following dreams and chasing passions. The songs were anthemic and catchy.
“Pep Talks” is equally as anthemic and catchy, but it brings an emotional and raw vulnerability to the mix. “Quarter-Life Crisis,” on which Akers admits “All these stories probably should be / just for my therapist.” It’s a vulnerable song, but listening alone with earbuds, you can imagine the crowds shouting along to the track at shows.
Though the stories are ripped straight from Akers’ life, the band made them into songs that can touch a wide audience. Lyrics in the verses are singular but the choruses are full of things universally felt.
The band also continues to bend and mix genres. Their sound is still best described by the sophomore album title. They mix folk, bluegrass, hip hop, rock and electronica. The mix also changes from track to track. “Why Did You Run?” feels like a clock tick sample away from a new Zedd track. “Dance with Ya” has a heavier rock influence. “Over My Head’s” rapid fire, anxious verses showcase the hip-hop influence.
The songs of the album were mostly written on the bus after the band’s concerts. That high energy environment is felt pulsing throughout the album. Tracks like “Don’t Mess With My Mama” and “JOYBOY” have high energy production that will play amazingly well in a live show.
But there are slower, subtler moments on the record as well, like “pictures,” which features Kacey Musgraves. “Pictures” is an aching ballad that shows a completely different side of the band. Written from the perspective of Akers’ mother, it is a song about the end of a relationship and the sadness of facing the memories you have together.
“Pep Talks” does not linger in trauma, though. As it progresses, the lyrics reorient themselves from admitting you need help to heal. “I feel like there’s a tendency in our generation to linger in negativity, but that’s not our story as a band or as people,” Akers said when describing the track “7000x” which serves as the album’s turning point.
The second half of the album is still raw but there is a lightness to it. It is more optimistic. “Alright (frick it!)” is about that voice in your head that tells you that everything is still going to be okay despite all the stress coming your way .
The latter half isn’t overly cushy either. In “Passion Fashion,” the second verse captures the space where these songs operate: “I like good things, I’m focused on the positive / I’m emotional, I’m a stubborn optimist.”
“Family/Best Is Yet to Come” starts with a poignant voicemail from Akers’ mom and brings the album to a close with the repeated refrain “the best is yet to come.”
“Pep Talks” is a rare album for the streaming age that you should really consume top to bottom on first listen. It is well thought out, and the instrumental interludes fill out the emotional atmosphere in a beautiful way. The songs take you on the band’s personal journey but forms an arc that almost anyone can relate to.
It is the perfect step forward for Judah & the Lion and is a mature but optimistic look at life and loss.