[13 February 2008]
When dropping their debut, 1997’s The Legend of Chin, on a primarily Christian market, SoCal rockers Switchfoot (then a trio, now a quintet) didn’t exhibit anything resembling populism, at least the type of populism that can plague rock and roll stars. Free of the pandering platitudes and feel-good faith so many other spiritual artists seem to espouse, the band expressed a genuine spectrum of feelings, belief and doubt, success and struggle through a sound that drew its influence from power pop and college rock. Just as Christian literary lion (no pun intended) C.S. Lewis and, say, prosperity preacher/author Joel Osteen will never be confused for one another, Switchfoot was the thinking Christian music fan’s band.
In one sense, 2003’s The Beautiful Letdown changed all that, and in another, it was the band’s greatest triumph. On the strength of songs like “Meant to Live”, the album reached the mainstream masses and catapulted the band to stardom among several new demographics, making room for teenaged devotees and listeners of modern rock radio under their meeting tent. The Beautiful Letdown was in no way a compromise of the band’s sound or ideals, which makes its wide-ranging appeal even more remarkable.
In the wake of the album’s achievement, however, two successive records made room for a muscular sound, undertaken and executed with often mixed results. While the basics of what initially made Switchfoot were still intact, they were at times obscured by concessions that were made seemingly to keep focus on maintaining the band’s popularity.
Thus, these two EP’s (the first offerings in a series of four seasonally named and styled discs) from Jon Foreman, the band’s frontman and principal songwriter, serve not only as something new for Foreman—an introduction to the solo realm—but also as a return. The EPs are a return to a renewed emphasis on Foreman’s remarkably and consistently perceptive lyrics, as well as the types of soundscapes which best frame his impassioned vocals.
The songs here are, for the most part, far more stripped down and bare than someone with just a cursory knowledge of Switchfoot’s radio output might expect. Again, the focus often turns to Foreman as a songsmith and sage, and when his best artistic qualities remain in view the results are nothing short of moving.
Fall‘s opening track, “The Cure for Pain”, sets the tone (literally and figuratively) for all that is to come behind it. Against the gentle strum of his acoustic guitar, Foreman delivers a touching melody and words that hint at the turmoil that even the most spiritually centered artist can encounter while putting their heart on their sleeve in front of thousands nightly. Foreman sings:
I’m not sure why it always flows downhill
Why broken cisterns never could stay filled
I’ve spent ten years singing gravity away
But the water keeps on falling from the sky
And here tonight while the stars are blacking out
With every hope and dream I’ve ever had in doubt
I’ve spent ten years trying to sing these doubts away
But the water keeps on falling from my eyes
The next songs on Fall, “Southbound Train” and “Lord, Save Me from Myself”, provide wonderfully delicate moments (on the former) and shades of ramshackle, ragamuffin folk (the latter). Fall is arguably the better of the two discs, and its best track, “Equally Skilled”, is one that displays how suitably and sensitively Foreman can handle spiritual issues within the context of his songs. Never preachy, often insightful in a way that even the most skeptical heart can appreciate, Foreman delves into a very perceptive lyric, setting up tales of both sin and salvation while using the same reference point:
We’re all murderers and thieves, setting traps here for even our brothers
And both of our hands are equally skilled
At doing evil, equally skilled
At bribing the judges, equally skilled
At perverting justice, both of our hands
He goes on to write:
Though I sit here in darkness
The Lord, the Lord alone, he will be my light
I will be patient as the Lord punishes me for the wrongs I’ve done against him
After that he’ll take my case, bringing me to light and to justice for all I have suffered
And both of his hands are equally skilled
At ruining evil, equally skilled
At judging the judges, equally skilled
At ministering justice, both of his hands,
both of his hands are equally skilled…at showing me mercy, equally skilled
At loving the loveless, equally skilled
Winter, too, has its moments of glory; opening track “Learning How to Die” and the chillingly sad “Somebody’s Baby” (wherein Foreman uses the same metaphor that Jackson Browne once used to illustrate Fast Times at Ridgemont High‘s young lust as a statement on the plight of the homeless) are both standout tracks.
Despite the delineation in title and intended effect, there is little discernable difference between the first two of Foreman’s musical seasons. While certain songs (most notably Winter‘s “White as Snow”) are a bit more evocative of distinct images identifiable with a specific season, the two discs are fairly consistent in tone and mood, proving equally autumnal, reflective, and somber.
The only major fault to be found with the albums are that they can be a little overly serious at times, with certain moments coming off as artsy for the sake being artsy. While this is a better problem to have than say, sounding lackadaisical, a few extra instrumental flourishes (such as on Fall‘s “The Moon Is a Magnet”) or an excessively contemplative tone (Winter‘s “In Love”, which sounds a bit like a modern madrigal) detract from the album’s overall vibe.
To use a cliché, were the album being graded on a traditional scale for its success in achieving the purposes Foreman sets out at its beginning, it would garner an A for effort, perhaps a B or B- for execution. Overall, the project is, to borrow from James Joyce, a portrait of this artist as a young man transforming into a grown man. Should Foreman be able to transfer the spirit of this album to future Switchfoot projects, that band might again be the beacon of thought and artistry it was early on.