Introductory Note: In appreciation of Petra’s fortieth year in music and ministry, I am ranking their albums from least best to greatest. You can read my opening post here.
Back to the Street (1986, StarSong)
Lineup: John Schlitt (lead vocals), Bob Hartman (guitar), Mark Kelly (bass), John Lawry (keyboards), Louie Weaver (drums)
There are two schools of thought when it comes to this album. One says that it is yet another in the long list of solid Petra albums with some solid tunes, the other says it is a transitional album breaking in the John Schlitt era. Both schools of thought are, in my mind, correct when it comes to Back to the Street.
When Schlitt joined the band, replacing Greg X. Volz, the vocals were a stylistic change (Schlitt has more of a rock-pop voice to Volz’s pop-rock voice, if that makes any sense), and the music began to change as well, but not so much on this album (although it is the first Elefante album) as in the next album and the one after that. So while there are some under-appreciated gems on this ten track offering, it would not quite reach the level of the last three Volz albums or most of the next few Schlitt albums.
The keyboards and use of electronics that were so prevalent in Beat the System are still present in this album, although not to such an overt degree. But that’s how the album starts, with keyboards and and a little rat-tat from Weaver on the title track, which is a call for the Christian to rise out of evangelistic apathy and take the good news about Jesus Christ “Back to the Street.” It really is a rousing call to put aside our obsession with one another’s lives and be concerned about whether or not people have eternal life.
“You Are I Am” is a great title for a song and a great praise-rock song in my opinion, and is just a great song about who God is, His eternality and sovereignty. “Shakin the House” is kind of ho-hum for me. Lyrically it’s a fine song, calling the believer to make sure his foundation is not on the sand but on the rock solid truth. “King’s Ransom” is a good ballad that considers the cross of Christ and, although one might think by the title that this is primarily a song about the ransom aspect of the atonement, it’s really more about the penal substitution of Christ: “The ransom that He paid was the sacrifice he made / The life of a King in place of me / The shame that He bore for the rich and for the poor / Changed His crown of thorns into glory.”
My favorite song on this album is, without a doubt, “Whole World,” which is kind of a play on the old song “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.” It’s the arena rocker of the album to me, with great lyrics to boot: “Humanistic lies lament / The holocaust is imminent / Doomsday prophets in the news / Predicting who will light the fuse / The fate of His creation isn’t subject to a man / The final consummation is according to His plan // And He’s still got the whole world in His hands tonight / And only He knows where the sparrow lands tonight / And nothing in this world can stop His plans – tonight / ‘Cause He’s still got the whole world in His hands.”
While I’d say the first half of the album boasts four out of five good to great songs, the second half brings a significant drop off. “Another Crossroad” is fine, but doesn’t stand out in any way. Lyrically, the message is that when you don’t know where to go you have to go to the word of God, which ultimately is the most important thing. The next song, “Run for Cover,” at points sounds very much like “Another Crossroad,” with lyrics which ultimately point one to coming under the authority of the lordship of Christ.
“Fool’s Gold” is the best song on the second half of the album, a ballad straight out of 1 Corinthians 1 which points us to it being more important to follow the wisdom of God than the wisdom of the world. Consider these lyrics: “When the crowns of gold all lay before His feet / Then the worthy Lamb of God is the treasure we will keep / Some may call me foolish – some may call me odd / But I’d rather be a fool in the eyes of men – Than a fool in the eyes of God.”
“Altar Ego” calls out the hypocrisy of men and our people pleasing tendencies. Then, “Thankful Heart,” a soft rock ballad, closes the album, although the lyrics seem to be from the Department of Redundancy Department – “I have a thankful heart that You have given me, and it can only come from You.”
Overall, Back to the Street pleases the Petra fan but I don’t know anyone who considers it one of their favorites. This album gets lost in the shuffle of the great Petra albums, and that’s a shame because “Whole World” and “Fool’s Gold” are up there, in my opinion, with some of Petra’s best stuff. But I understand why it ranks where it does, and why I have it where I do. It was a new era and there would be better things coming. Still, check this album out.