As a Christian rocker, TobyMac owes nobody anything. In the 90s as a founder of the rock-rap trio dc Talk, he wrote the group’s signature song, “Jesus Freak,” and imported mainstream producers to make dc Talk’s albums and videos. He cut a new path for Christian groups in the realm of college radio and mainstream labels. In this century he’s been discovering and producing new acts, like current hit Reliant K, while releasing three solo albums.
So enshrined is TobyMac (real name: Toby McKeehan), that it’s been an unexpected delight to watch “Made to Love” from his new album, Portable Sounds, become an Christian radio hit. The veteran songwriter has been heard in interviews talking coltishly about finding “new weapons” in his voice and “new toys” to play with in his artistic toy box.
Much of the rest of Portable Sounds, though, has TobyMac rummaging through his usual tool set. The musical schizophrenia that normally keeps us off-balance and alert in TobyMac’s work–melodies playing over heavy riffs, rap emanating from a small corner of the soundscape, and blasting rock–sounds here like a man looking to stir up excitement for well-worn themes about the joys of diversity and his availability to faith.
“Whatever I got to be, I’ll be for you,” he sings in “I’m for You.” As music or message, it lacks a certain rootedness. The real discovery here is what happens with TobyMac when he pins a single, strong idea (that we’re hardwired to look for a divine being) to an energetic, hook-filled romp with echoes of late Sting: A custom-built hit you can’t resist cranking up in the car. Where’s the anchor in this album?