In Brief: Pretty good as mainstream pop/rock albums go, but average as Switchfoot albums go. Given their newfound independence, I expected more of an artistic statement.
I’ve considered Switchfoot to be one of my favorite bands for quite some time now. They first proved to me they could strike a balance between the humorous and the profound at the turn of the century with the album Learning to Breathe, not long before adding keyboard player Jerome Fontamillas to their three-man garage-rock lineup and getting thrust into the mainstream spotlight and turning out their most consistently memorable and well-written record, The Beautiful Letdown, in 2003. Even when the general public’s attention started to wane due to the lukewarm response given to 2005’s Nothing Is Sound and the surprisingly quick follow-up, 2006’s Oh! Gravity, I actually started to feel like their sound had improved even further on those latter recordings, thanks to the addition of second guitarist Drew Shirley. Neither of those records were as solid as The Beautiful Letdown when taken song-for-song, but it felt like the band’s music had more teeth and was less tied up in the studio mechanics. Most fans would tell you a different story – the dark and downbeat tone of Nothing Is Sound was a drag for many of them after the life-affirming pop goodness of The Beautiful Letdown, and for some reason many of them wrote off Oh! Gravity as some sort of disastrous betrayal. Columbia Records apparently didn’t see promising sales in the band’s future, so in late 2007, the band announced that they had become fully independent for the first time, which I actually took as exciting news, since they had their own studio and were more than capable of creating a solid record without a label’s guidance.
That next record was a long time coming, though, partially because the band needed a chance to refuel after churning out two records so close together, and partially because lead singer Jon Foreman seemed to be competing for the title of “World’s Busiest Rock Musician”, devoting the latter part of 2007 and much of 2008 to a series of EPs themed around the four seasons and then teaming up with Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek fame to form Fiction Family, a just-for-fun side project that took on a life of its own as it gave rise to one of 2009’s most exciting live shows. In the midst of all of this, the new Switchfoot record had been started and stopped and started again, coming together on its own unhurried schedule and finally manifesting in the fall of 2009 as Hello Hurricane. Initial reports tagged this disc as one of Switchfoot’s best (if not the best outright), departing in bold new sonic direction and shaking up the more-to-life language that had become a slightly repetitive theme after three or four records (a point which I was a little too quick to criticize them on when reviewing Oh! Gravity mere days after its release, not fully absorbing the unique sonic qualities that made it such an enjoyable record, because hey, I wanted to review that puppy before the year was out!) All of this left me pretty excited for Hello Hurricane, until I finally got the chance to hear the record for myself, and then I was like… that’s it? Really? Why all the fuss over a record that’s basically par for the course?
Now look, it’s not like I’d accuse Switchfoot of trying nothing new here. A few of the rockers rank among their most forceful and visceral, never quite reaching the staggering genius of a track like “Dirty Second Hands”, but definitely forcing their way into the listener’s brain in the most raucous manner possible. A few sonic experiments worked out well on a couple of tracks, none of which signal a major stylistic departure for Switchfoot, but they’ve got an atmospheric sort of euphoria that works well enough. My main problem is that the record leans more toward the pop side of the equation than the rock side, for the first time since The Beautiful Letdown, but not quite matching that record’s penchant for solid hooks. And as far as the more reflective side of the equation goes, they’ve got a few ballads here that just aren’t doing it for me, which is this first time I’ve felt that way about a Switchfoot record since contemplating the less memorable moments on Learning to Breathe. Like the last two records, Hello Hurricane also seems to lose a bit of steam in its back half, and I still can’t shake the feeling that they’ve written better versions of some of these songs before. Since Hello Hurricane is not quite the monstrously appealing pop album that The Beautiful Letdown was, not as broodingly dark as Nothing Is Sound, and not as “anything goes” manic as Oh! Gravity, it recalls excellent moments on each of these albums without ever stumbling across its own sense of identity. It’s a good, but flawed record – certainly not the statement of artistic freedom one would expect from a band fully calling their own shots for the first time. I don’t hate it. I just feel like there’s a bit of missed potential here.
1. Needle and Haystack Life
Drew’s acoustic chord processed through an amp, as if to sound like an electric guitar, is a great way to get things started. It leads us to expect a rocker that catapults out of the speakers, and this is more or less what Switchfoot delivers. Tim Foreman‘s thick bass lines and Chad Bulter‘s energetic drumming bring to mind some of U2‘s earliest work, and while it’s nothing new for a Christian rock band (excuse me, Christians in a rock band) to reference U2, it’s an effective enough sound with just the right balance of modern and vintage elements. The lyrics aren’t among Jon Foreman’s most revelatory – he’s trying to convince a girl who is unsure of her purpose that “it’s no accident we’re here tonight”, that each moment is divinely planned and that she has everything to live for. This sort of falls into Switchfoot’s usual category of grandstanding about the meaning of life, but it’s fun, so I’ll let it slide.
2. Mess of Me
Now this, I LOVE. Jon really digs into it with a dirty, grungy riff, which abruptly halts each time he sloppily delivers a line of lyrics about a a life spent half-lived due to a person being too doped up to care. This isn’t a “say no to drugs” advert so much as it’s a commentary on how we’re constantly given this barrage of information telling us we need just the right anti-depressant or decongestant or headache pill or whatever to make us feel one hundred percent, and Jon seems to be questioning the side effects of such a dependency – a life where a person can cope with one’s symptoms, but is so much of a slave to the substance that they can’t truly live. He yelps this one out with great fervor as the band slams through the chorus – “I wanna live the rest of my life alive!” Once again, I’m unsure of whether this band could write a hit song without using the words “life” and “alive”, but since it addresses a more specific problem that keeps us from truly living our lives, the song still manages to leap forward as a standout track.
3. Your Love Is a Song
First came Oh! Gravity‘s “Let Your Love Be Strong”. Then came Jon’s Spring EP, which featured his version of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Love Is Strong”. Now we have “Your Love Is a Song”. And Jon has said that this is quite intentional – the same idea manifesting itself in a trilogy of songs. And while I respect that some songwriters just keep coming back to the thing that fascinates them most, I still feel that this mid-tempo devotional track doesn’t quite measure up to past Switchfoot songs on a similar subject. The plodding rhythm might have something to with it – the casual acoustic strum leading to a typical electric chord progression during the chorus seems way below the bar that Switchfoot should be aiming for, and Jon has also directly compared God’s love to a symphony in the past (see “Only Hope”, the song that served as a gateway to the band’s brief glimpse of mainstream success). This one’s got a serviceable enough chorus melody, and Christian radio will probably play it to death, but to me, this sounds like Switchfoot on auto-pilot.
4. The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues)
I’m not sure what to call the effects-drenched guitar riff that serves as the backbone of this song – it’s sort of funky, but a bit too grungy to be comfortbaly classified as “funk” genre-wise. It’s a synthesis of musical ideas, a constant pulse that runs through a song which benefits from both the gritty passion of live performance and the precision of studio wizardry, as it lurches forward through its jerky, excited chorus and rails against an oppresive system with “the voice of breaking down”. It’s exciting enough to start a movement, if only we knew what the heck that movement was about. Foreman’s lyrics reference civil rights activist John M. Perkins, whose book Let Justice Roll Down inspired the song, but without knowing anything about Perkins, it wouldn’t be clear that the song’s about racism – it comes across instead as a more generic call to action against whoever’s running the system. Despite Switchfoot’s frustrating habit of taking sources of inspiration that are specific and profound and turning them into more generic one-size-fits-all anthems, I have to admit it’s hard not to pump my fist in time with the chorus. This one turns out to be my #2 favorite on the album.
5. Enough to Let Me Go
We’ve all heard the age-old nugget of wisdom “If you love someone, set them free” enough times by now – Foreman even explored it himself with the song “My Love Goes Free”. I guess the idea was still lingering in his mind, because it ended up getting revisited heere, paired nicely with a steady, medium-paced rhythm and a repeating acoustic guitar figure that work together to form one of Switchfoot’s more quietly effective “mellow” songs. Here, I don’t mind that the tempo of the album lets up a bit and that pop is more prominent than rock – this one breathes in a way that “Your Love Is a Song” didn’t quite manage. Foreman’s lyrics are actually quite arresting here, almost sounding like a track that could have been a leftover from the Fall & Winter sessions, but beefed up by the support of the band in a way that those stripped down EPs were not. The question “Do you love me enough to let me go?” is central to a tune that I thought at first was a break-up song, but which turns out to be a song about needing space and trust in a relationship – needing that time to go away, have some experiences on your own, and then come back and share what’s been learned and affirm that you still want that other person even when not forced to cling to them. As a married man, I can appreciate this sentiment.
Is it just me, are or there certain song titles where every band who’s around for long enough goes, “Hey guys, we haven’t titled a song this yet even though everyone else has?” I guess “Free” would be one of those titles. Not that this automatically makes a song generic; it’s just one of those weird observations that I had to make. Thanks to the minor-key mood, the constant forward marching of Chad’s drums, and a buzzing progression on the guitar that sounds suspiciously reminiscent of Led Zeppelin‘s “Kashmir”, it’s one of the more musically addictive tracks on the record. The lyrics make some interesting points about being a slave to oneself, trying to love and only causing others pain, and otherwise being depraved and destitute and needing an outside force to truly set you free. I’d give them a reasonably above average grade for how this subject is handled, compared to the usual take I’d expect from a CCM band on this subject. It doesn’t blow me away, but it works. Foreman’s vocals are once again a big part of what sells it for me. He’s got that “passionately imperfect yelp” going on that has always punctuated Switchfoot’s better rockers.
7. Hello Hurricane
There’s a brief bit of ambient noise at the beginning of this one which reminds me of Sigur Rós – but the similarities end there. This title track is all about its electronic but melodic undercurrent and its 80’s-inspired backbeat. I normally enjoy it when rock bands experiment with a combination of electric guitar energy and danceable pop music, but for some reason, Switchfoot’s attempt at it here seems rather pedestrian, which is troubling since this is the title track. The theme of the record is supposed to presented here – which seems to be the awareness that a difficult trial is coming, and greeting it head-on with confidence that it can’t get the best of you. But the analogy used here, in which a hurricane is addressed as a symbol for hard times, seems to be a bit lazy. There are the usual references to red skies and doors and windows being boarded up – standard fare for anyone who’s ever been through a hurricane – but I don’t ever feel like the idea is fleshed out enough to make the idea hit home. “Hello hurricane, you’re not enough”, declares the chorus. “Hello hurricane, you can’t silence my love.” These two lines, the main hook of the song, feel so standard that they kill whatever specific point the song is trying to make.
The bright, watery sound of the piano in this surprisingly tender ballad immediately brings me back to “Deep in Your Eyes (There Is a River)”, one of my favorite tracks from the Summer EP. It’s another simple, devotional song, which for my money fares a little better than “Your Love Is a Song” due to the less obvious musical approach. The full band helps once again to differentiate it from the sparseness of Jon’s solo work, and the lyrics are more directly “religious” in nature than the usual universal approach that Switchfoot takes, but they never try to turn it into an obvious pop/rock hit, choosing to let the gentle strokes of the electric guitar and the choral wash of background vocals fill in the spaces where the typical plodding guitar chords would otherwise go. That makes piano and drums the lead instruments, and it’s a nice change of pace for Switchfoot. Surprisingly, this got released as the first Christian radio single (to the stations not edgy enough to play “Mess of Me”, anyway). Good on ’em for giving it a chance.
9. Bullet Soul
Since The Beautiful Letdown, there’s been at least one rocker in the back half of each Switchfoot album that has sounded to my ears like a generic rewrite of a better idea from a past album. On Nothing Is Sound, it was both “Politicians” and “We Are One Tonight”. Then “Burn Out Bright” took that slot on Oh! Gravity. Now we have another fuzzed-up, guitar driven, crunchy concoction that sounds like classic Switchfoot, a variant on a sound that dates back at least as far as “You Already Take Me There”, and which makes the all-too-common mistake of being too vague in the hopes of constructing an audience-unifying anthem that makes people feel pumped up, yet says little of substance in the process. The song’s so busy dedicating itself to all of the busted-up people there and trying to pump them up for their one chance to do something vaguely positive that it fails to explain the analogy behind its title: “You can’t stand by forever, you’re a kid with a bullet soul.” Once again, Foreman’s commentary on the song (which is insightful, as is his commentary on pretty much every song from this disc) explains what the song itself should have at least hinted at – a person gets one shot at truly making an impact. Sometimes I wish he wouldn’t bother explaining his songs at all – then he’d have to write them in such a way that the lyrics could artfully draw the connection from Point A to Point B that is apparently happening in his mind. All of that said, if you just want to throw your head back and shout something that feels awesome at the top of your lungs, then Foreman’s repeated shoutsof “Are you ready to GOOOOOOOO!!!” should give you an excellent fix.
How on Earth could Switchfoot go from a folsky experiment involving slide guitar to a bumbling, dull experiment with lazy-sounding bass and barely-there percussion? That’s what this way-too-laid-back song turned into in its final form – a song about being so down and out that you’re not sure God still loves you, only for God Himself to provide the assurance that “You haven’t lost me yet”, one which cries out for some sort of force and conviction to drive its point home, but finds none in Foreman’s sleepy delivery. I honestly haven’t been this bored with a Switchfoot track since “Amy’s Song” way back on New Way to Be Human. The lyrics, with their platitudes such as “If it doesn’t break your heart, it isn’t love” and their overdone descriptions of bruised and bleeding souls, also pale in comparison to the similar, but much better executed song “The Blues” from Nothing Is Sound.
11. Sing It Out
Now this is interesting – it’s one of Switchfoot’s darkest and sparsest moments, musically speaking, but they’ve come up with a song that knows how to make the most of the quiet tension and lead us to the expected eruption of pure feeling. The bleak synth tones and guitar feedback of the intro create a cavernous space for Jon to sing his weary melody, which at first reminds me of Radiohead‘s “Lucky”, but it quickly takes an anthemic turn that easily moves it out of Radiohead territory. Despite the way that the chorus brightens the mood and turns a despairing song into a heartfelt prayer, the band shows an admirable amount of restraint here, allowing the tension to hang in place until acoustic and electric guitar chords chime in during the bridge, and then finally the walls fall down and the drums finally bring some weight to the arrangement during the final chorus. It’s an exercise in delayed gratification, and Switchfoot has only done this sort of thing a handful of times before (most notably on “Daisy”), so I’m guessing this little brooding reflection won’t be a fan favorite, but I think it makes a good emotional climax near the end of the album. (Too bad it’s not surrounded by better songs – the tempo really lags at the end of this disc.) I should also note that Foreman’s description of himself as a melody waiting to be “sung” by God illustrates this analogy much more effectively than “Your Love Is a Song”, making that earlier song even more unnecessary by comparison.
12. Red Eyes
Really, Switchfoot? We make it all the way to the end of an album that should be your biggest opportunity for risk-taking, and you decide to close it out with another lethargic, mid-tempo anthem? This one just doesn’t work for me. It’s too much pretty with too little power, matched to muted electric guitar and an unimaginative drum beat, with strains of a string section and little bits of folksy instrumentation, but no single element that bothers to rise above the sleepy haze. The repetitive chorus doesn’t help any – “With red eyes, what are you looking for? WIth red eyes, red eyes.” That’s not exactly profound, especially when it only serves to gather together a set of lyrics which once again takes a vague stab at the idea of a person pondering their purpose in life. The bridge might give the melody a bit of a lift, and the lullabye-like coda which brings back vague echoes of “Needle and Haystack Life” is an interesting enough way to bring the album full circle, but it’s not a good sign when the best thing about your album’s closing track is that it contains a reprise of a much better song heard earlier on. Switchfoot usually knows how to end strong – they haven’t tossed off a final track that basically said “That’ll do, I guess” as much as this one did since New Way to Be Human‘s “Under the Floor”.
It’s clear that Switchfoot considers this album to be one of their most important, considering that their latest tour features the band playing the album straight through, in its entirety. While I’m usually thrilled to see a band who believes that strongly in their new material rather than racking upa list of songs that have rarely or never been played live since they weren’t even touched when they were new, I have to say that playing an album straight through kind of kills the unpredictability of their live show. This was actually my reason for skipping their tour this time around despite knowing that Switchfoot is one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Call me crazy, but song-for-song, Hello Hurricane doesn’t add up to a grand concept album where every piece must be followed by the logical next piece or else the whole thing makes no sense out of context. It’s simply a succession of mostly good songs, from which radio singles and live staples can be extracted as normal. And for those who want to enjoy a solid pop/rock album, you could certainly do a lot worse. But judging from this, the alarmingly early due date for 2010’s Vice Verses, and the fact that Foreman has been working almost non-stop since about 2005, it might be time for this band to pull back and realize that they could benefit from the services of an editor. Sometimes less released material can mean that more of it is of higher quality.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Needle and Haystack Life $1.50
Mess of Me $2
Your Love Is a Song $.50
The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues) $1.50
Enough to Let Me Go $1.50
Hello Hurricane $.50
Bullet Soul $.50
Sing It Out $1.50
Red Eyes $0
Jon Foreman: Lead vocals, guitars
Tim Foreman: Bass, backing vocals
Chad Butler: Drums
Jerome Fontamillas: Keyboards, guitars
Andrew Shirley: Guitars
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.