As he commenced writing for his latest album, Vice & Virtue, veteran artist Jimmy Needham found himself in the midst of an unnerving internal crisis — an overwhelming sense that he just wasn’t measuring up spiritually.
“I would be in my writing room and feeling like it was the end of the world,” Needham recalls.
But as the songwriter and R&B vocalist peeled back layer after layer of sorrow he just couldn’t shake, a few rays of light began appearing — most prominently through a study on the book of Galatians by well-known pastor Timothy Keller
One quote by Keller — whom Needham thanks in the Vice & Virtue liner notes —“devastated” him: “Irreligious people repent of nothing. Religious people repent of their sin. But Christians repent of their righteousness.”
“That opened up a world for me,” Needham explains with excitement.
And it got the 29-year-old asking uncomfortable questions: Do I sin in my most pleasant moments? Do I rely on my nice behavior to gain favor with God? Is it possible that my reliance on my righteousness is the opposite of what Christ wants from me?
“My ‘nicety’ gave me a sense of worth and value,” Needham confesses. “But that’s really the opposite of the gospel. We bring nothing to the table except sin and brokenness. Through all of my religious efforts, I was actually fleeing from the cross.”
These stirring revelations unleashed the overarching lyrical theme of Vice & Virtue — but there was another problem: Having never before committed words of this nature to tape, Needham was nervous about how others would react, particularly his listeners.
“My fans are nice people,” Needham observes. “They don’t cheat on their taxes. They hold doors for strangers. They say their prayers.”
So how would they respond to lyrics from the title track — a tune Needham calls “the most offensive song I’ve ever written”?
All my sins go to private school
All my sins know the golden rule
All my sins hold the door for you
There’s vice in all my virtue …
Hell’s gonna have an HOA
Hell’s gonna have a low crime rate
If we don’t watch out it’ll have us too
There’s vice in all my virtue
Punctuating the track is an angular acoustic guitar mirroring Needham’s soulful crooning like lethal thrusts of a sword — pointed and sharp, right down to the core.
And then the line Needham figured the record company would never let see the light of day — one that got its author remarking, “I can’t believe I just said that”:
Which is good and which is bad:
Crystal meth or a gospel tract?
If it’s done for me and not for you,
There’s vice in all my virtue.
But the powers that be loved it — and then it was on.
“Jesus didn’t come to make us nice, he came to make us new,” Needham remarks, borrowing a C.S. Lewis maxim. “The Pharisees were the people he had the harshest words for in all the gospels: ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.’ That’s big and it hits me hard.”
While Needham’s resurgent spiritual path was fueling his lyrics, the music of Vice & Virtue got a big boost after the songwriter reconnected with Will Hunt, producer of his landmark album, 2008’s Not Without Love, and who’s worked with the likes of Evanescence. Needham credits Hunt with throwing away the recording studio playbook the singer was familiar with and boldly forging new creative paths.
“We said, “OK, let’s break the mold of how I write music,’” Needham says. “It was very much a new process. It was the first time I wrote with a band. I got together with some of my favorite musicians in a room for a week, and we just wrote. It was inspiring and awakened something new in me.”
That fresh musical approach is all over the Vice & Virtue tracks. “All We Need Is Need” — a quite danceable tune with a downright sunny, almost triumphant melody — takes its moniker from theologian John Gerstner. And the reason for joy in the jamming may be Needham’s conviction that “all Christ requires of us is ... nothing! And yet it’s one of the hardest things coming to the table with.”
Then there’s “Mr. Nice Guy” — a track that offers full-on disco flavor and rapping by artist KB driving home a quite-serious topic: Nice is a code word, Needham says, for safe. “What are we trying to produce in the church?” he asks. “Family-friendly, comfortable, secure, safe men and women? I’m not convinced those are the attributes Jesus is asking us to exhibit. Does he want us to be kinder? Yes. Moral? Absolutely, yes. But I don’t want to be so safe for my whole family that I avoid all the dangerous things he might be calling me to do.”
“Jekyll & Hyde” is a bluesy departure — added to the album at the eleventh hour yet offering another crucial variation on the Vice & Virtue theme: A story about “a good guy and a bad guy — but it turns out they’re the same guy,” Needham explains. “It really doesn’t matter if you’re Dahmer or Gandhi; we all have the same infection. Every last one of us is pretty much the same.”
“It’s a terrifying thing to be nice,” Needham adds. “We’re blinded to a lot of things that not nice people aren’t blinded to. We can say the same things about ourselves that we say about axe murderers — we all have that monster inside of us. Some of us act on those impulses, but the majority of Americans do it in a suit and tie. So deceptive.”
The album ends, fittingly, with “The Story (A Spoken Word)” — an epic poem, complete with throwback organ and drums that would be welcome on any Beck album. Here Needham introduces a hero and a villain who trace the gospel narrative that culminates in the truth that “the solution to all our pharisaical tendencies isn’t any more complicated than the Good News of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us.”
And now — with a song cycle of soul-stirring spirituality undergirded with music full of creativity — Needham is ready to share his discoveries with his listeners.
“I don’t feel cynical,” he notes, despite the challenges for fellow Christians he’s letting loose with Vice & Virtue. “I love the church; I wrote this album for the church. And it seems most appropriate for the body of Christ.”
Jimmy and his wife Kelly currently reside in Dallas, TX with their two daughters, Lively and Sophia.