[5 August 2003]
Here’s a summer album that’s not really like most others. While others sing of girls and love and heartbreak, Switchfoot uses its infectious anthems to contemplate the human condition, good, bad, and ugly. Jon Foreman describes it like this: “It’s an honest attempt to reflect on the great and terrible aspects of being human, the tension of existence”.
As such, The Beautiful Letdown is anything but a letdown considering the high quality of these eleven new songs. Jon Foreman continues to write tunes that are catchy enough to make appearances in television and film, yet, when not surfing or touring, the San Diego native is more likely than not to be found reading philosophy, from Plato to Kierkegaard to Pascal, venturing beyond and challenging his faith.
In the two and a half years since Learning To Breathe, the successful Christian crossover band has gone from a trio to a quartet with the addition of guitarist/keyboard player Jerome Fontamillas. He joins lead vocalist/guitarist Jon Foreman, his brother Tim on bass, and Chad Butler on drums, who have enlisted a skilled team of veteran pop experts to help with their latest effort: John Fields produced, and Chris Lord Alge, Tom Lord Alge and Jack Joseph Puig mixed tracks. Fields and company have done a nice job of making each song here a separate sonic landscape.
“Meant To Live” opens with some pleasantly hard guitar that provides a nice contrast to the smooth tenor of Foreman’s voice. This is about doubt, questioning, and fear (as are many of the other songs); the feeling that life has to be more than these daily arguments and failures, that we want it to be more: “Dreaming about providence and whether mice and men have second tries / Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open; maybe we’re bent and broken”.
Electronic sounds and synth effects are used to great advantage in these arrangements, complementing the tight band that already existed. This is obvious in the sounds of “This Is Your Life”, a big ballad about living for the day, for the moment, facing up to the facts, and letting yesterday go: “Today is all you’ll ever have, don’t close your eyes / This is your life, are you who you want to be?”.
One of my favorites is “More Than Fine”, which sounds to my ears much like the sweet songs of Jay Clifford of Jump, Little Children. This, continuing with the theme of examining the human condition, is a call for quality and excellence, something more than just getting by, something more than just okay.
“Ammunition” is a darker song all about blame, desperation, and the chaos we’ve made of things here. Humans have corrupted love and that mess we’ve made is inherent in all of us, the human condition: “We are the fuse and ammunition”. Not exactly the typical lyrical fare of the usual loud, nod-your-head-along-with-it, upbeat rocker—and this is what sets Switchfoot apart.
Soft follows loud, as the pretty ballad “Dare You To Move” welcomes you to the planet and existence, eager to see what happens next. Again, this is a challenge to move, to lift one’s self up off the floor, and to face today as if it were the only day. The tension is acknowledged: “Between who you are and who you could be / Between how it is and how it should be”. Yet there’s nowhere to escape from yourself, which is what Foreman’s saying—there’s salvation in facing the music. And, yes, this is a remake of the song from Learning To Breathe.
“Redemption” shows that Foreman and mates have not abandoned their Christian roots. Here we get fears and insecurities laid before the higher powers, looking for answers: “Here I am, won’t you get me?”. Similarly, “On Fire” asks for a second chance around, talking about how there’s more to life than what’s heard and found in empty conversations, addressing the fire when “He” speaks, reaffirming belief as a means to salvation.
The title track is the longest song on the CD, a big, broody, expansive anthem of comfort found in not belonging. Success and riches were not enough, according to Switchfoot: “In a world full of bitter pain and bitter doubt / I was trying so hard to fit in, until I found out / I don’t belong here”. The gist is that, hey, there’s more to life than that, I’ll take my faith and my music and thanks anyway, but I’m moving on.
Probably the most infectious tune (and it’s a tough call) is the bouncy “Gone”, a telling revelation of life’s temporary condition and an assurance that life is still so much more, still worth living. First you get the serious news: “We are not infinite / We are not permanent / Nothing is immediate / And we pretend like we’re immortal”. Then we get the lighter side of the temporal: “Gone like Frank Sinatra / Like Elvis and his mom / Like Al Pacino’s cash / Nothing lasts in this life”. Extra points to Foreman here for addressing statements at the song’s close to Bono.
A close second on the “catchy meter” is “Adding To The Noise”, a compact little ditty that’s radio-ready in its anti-radio message, decrying modern humanity’s speed and greed, the endless hype and media noise surrounding us daily. Switchfoot offers sacrifice as solution: “If we’re adding to the noise, turn off this song”.
“Twenty Four” is a ballad closer, a recap of the ground covered here, basically that life and its meaning were questioned but ultimately, there’s still belief: “Life is not what I thought it was twenty-four hours ago / Still I’m singing Spirit take me up in arms with you”.
There are pleasant songs here, well executed and well produced. Switchfoot continues to make great strides forward in their music, and obviously in their spiritual quests as well. Fans of the group will enjoy it, and I’d expect their mainstream audience to grow as more songs get further movie and television show exposure. The Beautiful Letdown offers a good variety of sounds and tempos all exploring questions about this human condition we call life. When rocking out to them on some beach somewhere, it’s cool to think that some folks might just stop for a second and ponder the meaning of life.