The only true alchemy in this world occurs when trials turn to gold, the debris and heartbreak of life transformed and polished into shining beauty by a loving, unseen hand. We try to catch a glimpse of this remarkable change in action, yet human eyes fail us. However, once these storms of life pass, we see the afterglow through signs as sure as Noah's ancient rainbow. A loved one overcomes. Morning breaks after an impossibly long night. Grace thunders through spiritual drought with a mighty downpour of living water. All of this, and more, affirms the fact that yes, life is beautiful.
Such alchemy transforms The Afters' fourth studio album, Life Is Beautiful, though the title came innocently enough to vocalist-guitarist Josh Havens. He's been carrying it in his head ever since the release of the Oscar-winning 1997 film of the same name. But by the time the music came to fruition, Havens said he was wrestling with an ordeal that tested him like no other—and this from a guy who, along with his wife and kids, survived a near-fatal car wreck several years prior.
"My son had some unexpected problems at birth and had to spend some time in the hospital ICU," he recalls. "And I prayed that God would turn my trials into testimonies."
The result: "Waiting for an Answer," a song Havens says was inspired not only by his son's struggles with a punctured lung, but also the children and parents in that ICU who coped with much more: "I don't have to know how/ Or see you turn this around/ To believe in you now…"
"I had a friend who lost his child,” Havens continues. “He went through years of depression. I can't even imagine going through that. But he said something to me I'll never forget: 'The thing that challenged my faith in the short term is what strengthened my faith in the long term.' I hope to move through the struggles to find a deeper faith in God. I want to be the person who grows closer to God through the hard times."
That spirit surrounds Life Is Beautiful, an album that dares to affirm all that matters through its every detail, right down to the artwork. The Afters solicited fans, friends and family to send in photos that answered the question, "What are the beautiful things in your life?" The album design assembles a collage of those pictures, much as the songs explore the facets of finding beauty in ashes, the everyday, and all spaces between and beyond.
Take "Every Good Thing," the debut single that rockets from backbeat intro to melodic pop chorus on a feel-good tide of riffing guitars and handclaps. Praise to the maker comes for "every heartbeat, every day we get to breathe … every second chance." Rarely do catchy songs come this infectious and insightful; "Every Good Thing" lifts the listener to a place where they can see the source of true joy, even as they feel it through the music.
"We wanted something strong, upbeat and positive," Havens says. "We were looking back over the last year and we were struck by how many times we'd wake up and see those horrific headlines in the news. We're reminded every day of how many bad things there are in life, so we wanted to write a reminder of how much God is capable of doing." The verse they turned to for inspiration, fittingly, was James 1:17: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."
Definitive as that statement sounds, Life Is Beautiful began with challenging questions the group members pondered while on a writing retreat in Colorado. "As songwriters, we never what to make the same album twice," says guitarist-vocalist Matt Fuqua, who co-founded The Afters with Havens while the two worked as Starbucks baristas in Mesquite, Tex. "For us we try to go in asking: ‘What can we do that's different? How can we stretch ourselves? How can we take things further? How can we do more?' It was intentional to be really honest with our audience, and to be honest with ourselves by sharing things that are personal and meaningful."
The title track itself makes good on that promise; in fact, it earned a spot in the film October Baby long before the rest of the album was complete. "That was a song we had to rush to finish," Fuqua recalls. "The producers of the movie heard the song and got so excited. They shifted things around in terms of turn-in and release date just so we could get the song completed, and it was perfect timing."
And so does "Broken Hallelujah," a tender anthem inspired by last summer's wildfires in Colorado. Writing went into high gear after a friend sent pictures, snapped from his church, that showed the flames creeping precariously close: "Nothing left to hold onto/ I raise these broken hands to you/ Here's my broken hallelujah."
"There were times," Havens recalls, "when we were in tears writing that song. We opened the book of Job and saw a man who experienced more losses than we could ever fathom. In the midst of all that, he shaved his head and got rid of his clothes so that he had nothing left, and yet he still worshiped God. 'Broken Hallelujah' came out of that sense that when we're broken, the only thing we have is our worship."
Live and in the studio, Havens and Fuqua team up once again with drummer Jordan Mohilowski and bassist Dan Ostebo, who bring nimble musicianship and plenty of personality to the proceedings. "Dan is an outstanding writer and bass player, and Jordan is a phenomenally talented producer," Havens says. "A key to the dynamic of our band is that we have four creative minds, and we get along great. We love traveling together and when we write, there's wonderful chemistry. Something special always comes out of it, and if we weren't in a band together, we'd be hanging out."
Producer Dan Muckala (who helmed the band's 2010 effort Light Up the Sky) also returns to guide eight of the new album tracks. David Garcia (Mandisa, Britt Nicole) and Ben Glover (For King & Country, Jason Castro) produce three more tracks, while Mohilowski took on the song "Moments Like This," earning praise from his bandmates: "He killed it, and the song sounds amazing," Havens raves.
Such enthusiasm for "Life Is Beautiful" may sound like idle boasting. It's not. Rather, The Afters sweated this recording in a way they could hardly anticipate. Life gave them the unplanned, the unexpected, even the unwanted. No one would've blamed them had they crumbled beneath it all, or called a long time out. Instead, they dared to ask a simple question:
"What are the beautiful things in your life?"
Havens sums it up thus: "Our hope for our record—and a lot of heartache went into this album—is that it will encourage people to see how God is working in their lives. He's not just there on the sunny days. No matter what we go through in life, God is still with us and life is beautiful—God is beautiful."