In Brief: Vice Verses feels like Hello Hurricane with its edges smoothed. It’s fun and occasionally quite meaningful, but largely by-the-numbers, and consequently one of Switchfoot’s weakest albums.
One of the songs that made Switchfoot famous did so by daring us to move. It was a message that I took to heart upon the initial release of the song on Learning to Breathe over a decade ago, and I was glad the world at large would get a chance to hear it when it was properly released as a single from their breakthrough album, The Beautiful Letdown. It rallied listeners to seize the day “like today never happened before”, and it would become one in a string of songs that made sure we remembered Switchfoot as that band who urged us there was a greater purpose to live. Which is not to say that plenty of other Christian and/or rock bands haven’t done this, but there was a certain gusto to Switchfoot’s method that made the old-as-dirt cliche believable. But over the ensuing years, it seemed like they would hammer home a similar message on album after album, to the point where I can’t help but wonder if Jon Foreman is stuck reliving the first day of the rest of his life.
The thought occurred to me, when listening to Switchfoot’s newest release, Vice Verses, that I would like to propose my own dare to the band. I’d like to see them come up with an entire album that does not use the word “life” or “live” anywhere in its lyrics. I figure I’ve been more than patient with them, noting on nearly every review I’ve written for the new albums that followed in the footsteps of The Beautiful Letdown that the lyrical themes were starting to become a bit too well-worn, but also observing how the band would try to change things up musically. TBL remains my favorite work by the band, by far their most consistent album. But the two albums that followed it took more chances musically, from the darker tone of Nothing Is Sound to the inherent wackiness of Oh! Gravity (an album reviled by many fans, but it had the distinction of hosting “Dirty Second Hands”, Switchfoot’s weirdest and, in my opinion, best song). Strangely enough, a long hiatus and a move to independent status, calling their own shots on their own homegrown label, produced Hello Hurricane, easily the band’s poppiest affair since TBL, but not quite the rebirth I was hoping for. Those same sessions reportedly gave rise to enough material for four albums, with the title for the next one already picked out years in advance: Vice Verses. That’s nothing if not an intriguing title. However, since the announcement of those best-laid plans, little from those initial sessions seems to have survived apart from a title track that inspired this album’s witty name. Vice Verses, in its final form, sounds like the band is inching that much closer to playing it safe after Hello Hurricane, and for that reason it’s a sensible companion record, but one that does little to break new ground for Switchfoot.
That’s not to say that they didn’t try, however. Vice Verses purports to emphasize the band’s rhythm section, bassist Tim Foreman and drummer Chad Butler, the other ingredients of the original trio that founded the band. As a result, several songs have a bit of a mechanical vibe, which is sometimes an interesting affectation, and at other times (notably on the ballads) a bit dull. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this band had two guitarists – Drew Shirley‘s arrival gave the band’s post-TBL albums a bit of extra weight and dimension, but here a lot of the rockier songs emphasize grungy rhythm guitar riffs, without seeming to have much use for a lead. Meanwhile, keyboardist and many-hats-wearer Jerome Fontamillas seems limited to a background role. He was the shiny new toy for the band to play with on TBL, and though some cried “overproduced”, he added a lot of color to the band’s once sparse take on late 90’s alt-rock, pulling them for better or worse into the realm of turn-of-the-century pop/rock. Here, though the music is often easygoing and poppy, it doesn’t feel like he was given much to do. So while I can appreciate the occasional track that attempts to throw a musical curveball, most of Vice Verses leaves me feeling like the band could have tried harder to reach past the edges of their now-comfortable sound, to give us a record that lived up to the ugly truth of its name. Instead, it’s one of those records that makes me give the dreaded half-recommendation despite Switchfoot being one of my favorite bands: If you’re already a Switchfoot fan, you’ll probably eat this up. If you’re not a fan, it probably won’t change your mind. Sucks to admit that, but I have to call it what it is – and to be fair, this mostly predictable record can still be quite entertaining.
A single guitar chord rings out before dissolving into feedback and leading into the song’s main riff. If this trick sounds familiar, it’s because a similar one started off “Needle and Haystack Life” on Hello Hurricane. Where that one boasted shimmering guitar delay, this one seems content with more of a cold, minimal approach, the rhythm guitar spitting out its power chords in sets of threes with the occasional squeal in between. This gives the song a mechanical feel, with a strong rhythmic hook but a rather simplistic melodic one. Lyrically, you’d expect more of the same old Switchfoot M.O. since the song has the word “life” right there in the title, but I’ll give these guys credit for digging a little deeper and telling us not just to believe there’s something more to life, but also that the something more starts now, not just when we die. So rather than hinting to folks who are hesitant to believe in God or in an afterlife that something more exists without specifically naming it, this one seems constructed to counteract the Christian subculture fallacy of getting saved and then trying to avoid the world as much as possible until we’re whisked away to heaven. “I still believe we could live forever,” Jon Foreman sings excitedly “You and I, we begin forever now.” Remember that phrase; it’ll be capital-I Important later on.
2. The Original
I find it sort of ironic that a crowd-pleasing rocker that urges folks to find their voice and be original sounds an awful lot like Switchfoot-by-numbers. Not that I mind the fuzzed-out guitar riffs and bass, or Jon’s excited little yelps in almost each line of the verses. But honestly, this is the kind of fuzzy, jumpy rocker that they’ve done once per album, with honestly not that much variation, ever since Learning to Breathe‘s “You Already Take Me There”. Fun stuff, but the band can basically exchange the old one of these for the new version in setlists on every subsequent tour. There’s a capable and amusingly bent guitar solo in the middle, and a bit of “Come on now, whoa!” in the bridge that’s tailor-made for audience response, so the song does what it’s designed to do, which is to breeze by without slowing down the proceedings and put a big smile on our faces. But all said and done, I kind of think Switchfoot could have reached a bit deeper on this subject, since singing about originality without really demonstrating it is rarely a wise idea.
3. The War Inside
The space-aged keyboards and drum programming give Jerome a bit more to do here, on one of Switchfoot’s few forays into electronic rock. Like “Afterlife”, it has a robotic feel, though that’s more intentional here, as even Jon’s vocals have a melodically flat and slightly metallic quality to them. They make good on their promise to showcase the rhythm section here, since Tim’s bass parts are noticeably juicy while Chad’s drumming is methodical but that fits well with the overall tone of the song. Jon’s lyrics have a slight bit of hip-hop cadence to them, which is not to say that he’s rapping (we might get to that later), but it gives his battle cry a little extra dose of street-smartness: “Put your hands up, open wide/Put your hands up, side by side/Age don’t matter like race don’t matter/Like place don’t matter like what’s inside.” It’s a song about fighting against human nature, and sure, we’ve heard Switchfoot explore this theme before, but I feel like the attitude of this one sets it apart and makes it one of the better tracks on Vice Verses. The rhyme at the beginning of the second verse is probably one of Foreman’s most cleverly stated: “I get the feeling that we’re living in sci-fi/I get the feeling that our weapons are lo-fi.” Little details like that are what rescue a song such as this from its same-old same-old surroundings. That said, the chorus seems to resolve to a melody that’s too easy and too repetitive to really carry the punch that the monotone verses seem to want to set us up for.
This one’s got “huge Christian radio hit” written all over it. The slow march of echoing drums telegraphs way ahead of time that this will be a power ballad, the moment were the iPhones all light up in concert. And the title telegraphs that it will be a prayerful song full of spiritual longing. It’s the first moment on the album where the band taps the breaks and gets repetitive, and the overall mood of it is pleasant, but everything’s so four-on-the-floor that it all feels so… bluntly obvious. Strangely, Jon’s lyrics are the only thing that doesn’t seem to quite fall in with the rhythm, which makes his delivery quite awkward, particularly as the verse builds up to the pre-chorus (“Even the rivers ways to run/Even the rain to reach the sun”, etc.) It’s like he’s starting each line at the wrong measure or something. I want to feel something when I listen to this one, but I only end up feeling like I’m being smacked over the head with more cliches than usual. it hammers home its repeating crescendo and seemingly leaves no power ballad cliche unturned. I can’t say that I hate it, but it still bugs me that I’m left unconvinced by this river of generic rock balladry that the band seems to want me to get swept up in. This is going to be a deeply personal song for many listeners, I’m willing to bet, and I’ll get slammed for casting it aside, but once again it’s Switchfoot-by-numbers.
5. Blinding Light
Not much I can seem to do with this one, either. It’s one of those mid-tempo palette cleansers that ramps things back up just a little bit after the big ballad, but like a few of the in-between tracks on Hello Hurricane, it seems to stutter along without enough energy to really get itself off the ground. it doesn’t help that we’re once again addressing young stock characters – a boy in the first verse and a girl in the second – who are urged not to conform to popular culture’s view of them. (That means not believing you’re Mr. Bulletproof Macho Man for the guy and not letting yourself be used as an empty sex object for the girl. How original.) This all resolves to a chorus that yearns for a blinding light “to take me higher and higher”. Come on, guys. This is Youth Group Pandering 101. Seriously, is that all you’ve got here?
6. Selling the News
My ears start to perk up again at this purposefully off-kilter tune that finds Jon Foreman playing the “beat poet” role to the best of his ability, letting the band loosen up their rhythm a bit for a bit of a protest song that finds Foreman either yelling excitedly and ever-so-slightly out of sync with the rhythm, or rapping, if you want to call it that. I’m not sure I do, but many think that’s what you have to call every instance of talking in a song. It rhymes, so I guess I won’t argue with those of you who want to call it rap. I’m not sure how well it works, but once again, it’s a fun diversion, and who doesn’t want to rail against The Man (TM) and the crap that the media constantly feeds us? The idea he’s trying to address is that “Suspicion is the new religion”, that we’re so inundated with biased sources and conspiracy theories that the truth has become relative in the minds of popular culture. It’s a fair enough premise, though he’s far from the first to express frustration with it. A repetitive chorus that almost reads like an attempt to recreate The Beautiful Letdown‘s classic “Gone” takes up a lot of space where something more profound could potentially be said. It’s fun to get swept up in Jon’s increasingly excited ranting, but musically speaking, this one’s a mess. (It only gets worse in a live setting, sadly.) Points for trying something different, I guess.
Enter power ballad #2. Actually, I kind of like this one. It’s approach is more minimal – an uncluttered, melodic lead guitar line and a simple drum loop are the characteristics that stick out the most in my mind. It’s a mellow pop song, sure, but it feels a little less like an obvious grab at radio, despite having an economical yet pretty melody. The tone is more confessional, as Jon conveys a feeling of existing but not really living. Sure, we need another Switchfoot song about how life needs to be meaningful like we need a hole in the head. And honestly, I think I came up with something very similar to “I want to thrive, not just survive” when I was making own hack attempts at songwriter during my college days. But I’ll be fair – I wasn’t able to finish the though in such an uncluttered and relateable manner as how Foreman has done it here. “I come alive when I hear You singing/But lately I haven’t been hearing anything”, is a concise and heartbreaking confession that effectively lets us into Foreman’s state of mind, and his analogies in the chorus all seem to hit the mark: “A steering wheel don’t mean you can drive/A warm body don’t mean I’m alive”. If Switchfoot’s mission is to make us all repeatedly ask, “What exactly am I doing with my life?”, then despite how annoyingly repetitive that motif can get, they’re doing it effectively here.
8. Dark Horses
Another thing you’ll find at least one of per Switchfoot album is a big gung-ho anthem to motivate the losers, the down-and-out, the folks cast out by the rest of society. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I feel like they hit this theme a lot. And often their attempts to rally these folks are a bit cloying – that’s why “We Are One Tonight” or “Bullet Soul” never quite spoke to me the way they were apparently intended to. Switchfoot’s latest attempt is not much different – a big gritty lead guitar riff hung on a background of shimmery, delay-pedal heavy rhythm guitar, lots of “Hey!”s and “Na na na”s and other things scientifically proven to get an easy response from the audience, and plenty of grandstanding about how the folks everyone else counted out are going to beat the insurmountable odds. And woe be to anyone who has never heard the idiom “dark horse” before, because the song does absolutely nothing to run with that analogy, besides dropping the phrase “We are the dark horses!” in the chorus. A smart song built around a catch phrase or idiom such as this at least takes the time to unpack the meaning of it or do something clever with the metaphor. A hack song just throws the phrase out there unadorned and expects us to get excited over it anyway. The band gets points for sheer energy here, but I can’t award any for lazy lyrics, and that’s problematic given that this was the album’s lead single. (Which could lead to some interesting calls coming through at some podunk radio station when a confused listener asks why a song is celebrating the four horsemen of the Apocalypse or something like that.)
Here we go into mushy mode for a song, as Jon pores over photographs and other objects that remind him of time spent with a long lost special friend, when life was young and everything was innocent. Awwwww. To be fair, I can sometimes get caught up in the galloping rhythm of this one (they made a reasonable attempt to not slow it down so much that it becomes a gloppy ballad that drags on forever), and there’s a genuine sense of fondness and loss that comes through in the general mood of the song. So it comes across as less cloying than some of the peers’ attempts. (Skillet‘s “Don’t Say Goodbye” comes to mind.) Still, I do get a bit of a last high school slow dance/graduation vibe from this one, and normally I’d give Switchfoot the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t shake the feeling that many of the songs on this album were a little bit too obviously engineered to apply generically to events in young folks’ lives when anything even vaguely related to the subject of growing up and moving on will get adopted as a theme song. Mark my words, this one’s probably been earmarked for a key scene in some WB drama.
10. Rise Above It
Another jangly guitar riff ringing out over a fuzzy rhythmic backdrop… yep, we’re back to Switchfoot’s basic recipe for catchy pop/rock concoctions. More lyrics about bored kids and life feeling like counterfeit and fighting the system… I’m honestly not exaggerating on any of those. So we’ve got another fun, bouncy listening experience that dissolves into the usual Switchfoot tricks when you examine it more closely. It’s pretty much interchangeable with any number of late-album rockers on other Switchfoot albums that were thrown in there to break up the flow of the slower songs that tend to naturally accumulate as the album winds down.
11. Vice Verses
As I understand it, this was the lone survivor of the initial Vice Verses sessions that follows almost immediately after the completion of Hello Hurricane. Not surprisingly, this song’s character is quite different – Foreman’s lyrics are more dark and downtrodden as he ponders the meaning of it all over a simple acoustic guitar, with little other adornment other than some echoing vocals and other muffled sounds in the background. It’s a vulnerable song that feels like a better take on a late-album ballad such as “Let Your Love Be Strong”, pointing out how futile man’s resistance against nature (be it the elements conspiring to kill us off or our own inward darkness) tend to be. Honestly, this one could have fit perfectly into one of Foreman’s solo EPs (particularly Fall/Winter) and I wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss. That’s not a bad thing. It means the songwriting’s a little smarter and Foreman’s a little more down to Earth. This probably means that a lot of Switchfoot fans will write it off as depressing, especially since the song wraps up with Foreman openly wondering where God is in the midst of all these tragedies. He’s not losing faith – he’s just having a bit of an Elijah moment, I guess. I’m not sure the song really does much to make good on its punny title, but since it technically is a set of verses about vice, I guess I can let that one go.
12. Where I Belong
To me, it seems like it would have been permissible to end this record on the title track. It’s a bit of a downer, but it’s an honest one, and a better record built with that track as a jumping-off point would have made it feel like more of a logical fit. Instead, “Vice Verses” is an anomaly on a record mostly designed to cheer up downcast faces and get audiences clapping and singing along. Nowhere is that emphasis on the lowest common denominator more obvious than the loud handclaps inserted into the beginning of this seven-minute ballad and the pedestrian “Whoa-oa-oa”s that get dragged out repeatedly over the course of it. I can’t say that Foreman’s lyrics are bad here – there’s the occasional clever bit like “I’m not sentimental/This skin and bones is a rental” that reminds me he’s trying to bring a theme from the beginning of the album full circle as he once again focuses on eternity. Strangely, this song ends up playing as one of those weary “longing for heaven” types of songs that “Afterlife” initially seemed to be trying to counteract. I suppose it’s natural. There’s the duty Christians should ideally have to be an active participant in making this world a better place (admittedly, we often don’t), but even if we’re doing that well, we can’t still help but long for that Promised Land where all of the injustice and disease and sin we’re fighting here on Earth is no longer allowed to exist. So I get the sentiment behind this kind of song, but the execution graudally falls flat as the song bores on towards its eventual end, with little change in the melody or rhythm. Drew’s doing his fair share of noodling about on the electric guitar to give the song more color, but it’s a bit shoved into the background behind the cloying background vocals and the rhythm section. And when they finally bring the album full-circle with those bookending lyrics borrowed from “Afterlife” at the end of the song, it somehow feels less brilliant than I suspect it should. They did this with “Red Eyes” echoing a few lines from “Needle and Haystack Life” at the end of Hello Hurricane, and I feel like there have already been one too many reminders that this album is a sequel of sorts to that one.
My sense of growing frustration with Switchfoot as Vice Verses moves inexorably toward the finish line is quite neatly encapsulated by my feelings about “Where I Belong”. I admire the heart behind it, but the approach is too obvious, and it’s retreading too many steps that Switchfoot has taken before (arguably more effectively the first few time around). I don’t think I can call Vice Verses bad or even average by radio-friendly rock standards… but it sure feels like a punt compared to the field goal I know Switchfoot’s capable of. Let’s just say that I’m glad the band seems to have scrapped their plans to release the four albums’ worth of material they apparently wrote during the Hello Hurricane sessions. Vice Verses, despite being retooled after that point, feels like it’s stuck in the same mode as Hello Huricane, and I don’t think I could take two more albums’ worth of being trapped in the band’s mindset circa 2009. It’s time for these guys to move on and find something more interesting, more personal, more specific to write about – and more interesting and unorthodox ways to make it catchy and/or make it rock.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Original $1
The War Inside $1.50
Blinding Light $.50
Selling the News $1
Dark Horses $1
Rise Above It $.50
Vice Verses $1.50
Where I Belong $.50
Jon Foreman: Lead vocals, guitars
Tim Foreman: Bass, backing vocals
Chad Butler: Drums, percussion, glockenspiel
Jerome Fontamillas: Keyboards, piano, synthesizer, guitars, percussion, etc.
Drew Shirley: Guitars, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.