Review Summary: More beautiful, less letdown
I’m not qualified to review a Switchfoot record.
You see, I’m the kind of person who drops $150 on the collector’s edition the day it’s announced and books tickets to back-to-back shows. I’m the kind of person who names his books after Switchfoot songs and pays $60 for VIP tickets to thereby gift Jon Foreman a copy of his angsty teenage poetry. Awkward. I’m also the kind of person who owns 30+ t-shirts and sojourns to Sandy Eggo for the sole purpose of maintaining his streak of seeing the band live yearly, after they go a hiatus. This is not the objective critique you’re looking for.
With that said, I’m forever hoping that each new Switchfoot record doesn’t suck.
You see, when you’re as invested in a band (or a person) as I am, you tend to overlook missteps and overstate triumphs. I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s the sunk cost fallacy writ large. Your childhood loves don’t need a lawyer, but you’ll do the job pro bono. Maybe the prequels are really masterpieces after all. Maybe NASCAR really is the greatest sport. Maybe Jon Foreman really is a lyrical mastermind. Or maybe I’m just trying to craft an aura of superficial sophistication for my subjective artistic and personal tastes. It’s like religion. You either dig Jesus or just don’t care. Forget the post-doc-level arguments over actualized infinities and moral ontology.
Ever since going indie (sort of) and erecting their own studio, Switchfoot’s perpetually promised artistic innovation, and invariably delivered standard 12-14 track alternative rock records peppered with Jon Foreman’s latest ruminations on Love with a capital L. 11 albums and 2 decades in, you know what you’re getting from a Switchfoot album. You’ve got 2-3 rockers, a couple softer numbers, and a surfeit of mid-tempo pop songs clad in the musical vestments of that particular album cycle. Nothing Is Sound remains the closest thing to the platonic ideal of a Switchfoot album for me, but even that record suffers from the inclusion of a clunker or two (see: Golden); at this point, I don’t think Switchfoot is the kind of band that pens transcendent, life-altering albums on the regular. What you get is generally not greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a musical grab bag, and no wonder: as Jon once opined, “The song is king.”
So consider me pleasantly surprised by this latest smorgasbord of sonic samplings.
Let It Happen constitutes the latest rendition of the trademarked Switchfoot rock opener, advancing the album’s agenda in admirable if predictable fashion. The start-and-stop Drop-D verses have been done many times before by this band, and better, but at least this time Jon Foreman’s guitar solo lasts longer than 5 seconds. The remainder of the singles are mixed. The title track eschews virtually all relics of instrumental subtlety, building a bass-and-drums biome of lyrical bombast; the outro makes the track, but one suspects it would be cut for the radio edit. All I Need seems painstakingly fashioned to embody an Instagram hashtag in musical form. Live It Well, for all its tropey CCM hamminess, at least proved moderately tolerable as a vessel for proto-campfire concert moments. When even Jesus Freak Hideout commenters call All I Need’s lyrics “insipid”, you know it’s lackluster. You can write this stuff, Jon, but you can’t sing it.
The middle half of the record largely consists of Switchfoot’s best approximation of a rockified Jon Foreman solo EP, seasoned with electronic elements and festooned with the occasional guitar solo. Happily, the quintet evidently remembered that they boast a dedicated synth guy amongst their lineup in Jerome Fontamillas, and it shows. Joy Invincible benefits enormously from this sonic pivot, delivering a delightfully optimistic bridge, despite an uncannily familiar opening chord progression (/r/tipofmytongue?). I’m not an EDM guy, but perhaps I should be: The Hardest Art deploys Kaela Sinclair of M83 as a soothing complement to Jon’s folksy rasp. Even The Strength To Let Go leverages its contemplative verses to explode in a welcome emotional crescendo in the chorus.
This time around, I don’t think Jon’s singing about Jesus via his trademark surrogate pronouns in most of the songs. Prodigal Soul buries the lede in its bridge (foreshadowed by the bit about the letter), via “I still see your face when I close my eyes and I think about you wide awake at night”. Even the most spiritual lyrics on the album in The Strength To Let Go’s bridge aren’t as straightforward as they appear; Jon’s handwritten lyrics render the line in the bridge as “I embrace a belief! I don’t know!” (Yes, I bought the companion photo book). This is Switchfoot’s breakup record.
At their best, Switchfoot delivers accessible anthems couched in wide-eyed optimism. I don’t think it’s an act. I echo WAIOR’s sentiment in his review of Hello Hurricane: “If you were to make a mixtape of Switchfoot’s best and most creative songs throughout their career, you would have a near perfect album.” Fanboyism aside, sometimes a song just works. Oxygen is the best Switchfoot ballad in years, boasting an eminently singable chorus. Dig New Streams does, indeed, endeavour to embody the spirit of its lyrical maxim, flowing through no less than three different musical ports (replete with shifting time signatures and vocalists) throughout its runtime. I’m not even sure it succeeds in its entirety, in particular the repetitiveness of the “PeoplePutYourHandsUp” bit, but I’m so glad it exists. Take My Fire rocks harder than any Switchfoot track since The Sound, don’t @ me. I haven’t smiled that hard after hearing a new Switchfoot track since Stars. This is the same band which wrote Dirty Second Hands and Ba55.
Look, Native Tongue ain’t a masterpiece. I’m not certain it’s even supposed to be. Cut All I Need, Wonderful Feeling (which renders unto the listener anything but), and We’re Gonna Be Alright, rework the track order into a more cohesive narrative order lyrically, and there’s a really tight breakup record to be had. For real.
I’m not the same Star Wars nerd who once had his Michael-W.-Smith-and-Casting-Crowns-fed mind blown by Nothing Is Sound anymore. My latest Amazon order consists of Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous LP, a Rise Against CD, and two Thrice records, and I’ve had “Ill Mind of Hopsin 7” on repeat as of late. Things change. Yet I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get over my high school sweetheart, and I’m cool with that. In five months, I’ll be yet again fading west to bake in the Encinitas sun with my fingers in the sand. My skin shall broil and calamitous ear damage shall ensue. I’ll pay $500 to sing All I Need with 20,000 beautiful strangers, and for the moment I’ll believe it.
Moonlight Beach is a magnet, and love alone is worth the flight.
Let It Happen
Dig New Streams
The Hardest Art
Take My Fire
All I Need
We’re Gonna Be Alright