Switchfoot – Fading West: Sorta like The Beautiful Letdown, except not Beautiful.

2014_Switchfoot_FadingWestArtist: Switchfoot
Album: Fading West
Year: 2014
Grade: C+

In Brief: Disappointingly predictable, for an album that’s supposed to be the soundtrack to its accompanying film and that evidently changed up Switchfoot’s usual recording process. They’re playing cultural catch-up here, and at times it’s enjoyable, but more often than not it’s generic, if not downright embarrassing.

Jon Foreman, the lead singer and primary songwriter for Switchfoot, is one of those guys who I’d love to have a chat with over lunch or coffee one of these days, just to have an hour or two to pick his brain. He’s one of those guys who seems articulate, compassionate, and genuinely funny in his written musings, and he’s just about one of the friendliest guys working in the music business today, sometimes going so far as to give impromptu acoustic performances out on the street for fans who couldn’t get into a sold out show. Throughout Switchfoot’s nearly two decades of existence, his love for subjects ranging from surfing to philosophy has been echoed in his songwriting, though if you’re looking for more varied subject matter, you’re probably best off mining Switchfoot’s early catalogue, in which intentionally goofy songs that were just there for laughs sat comfortably next to deeper, more philosophical and/or faith-affirming songs, and the odd woe-is-me relationship song just to change things up. These days, while I admire Foreman’s tireless work ethic and his ability to juggle multiple projects, I feel like his more acoustic solo recordings have been the primary venue for his more personal and deeply spiritual songwriting, while the more melancholy, relationship-oriented, and humorous stuff tends to find a home on recordings by Fiction Family, his folksy side project with Sean Watkins. Switchfoot, meanwhile, seems to have been heading slowly downhill ever since their mainstream breakthrough with The Beautiful Letdown over 10 years ago – that album’s still a high watermark for the band, for me personally and for fans in general. The problem is that the general sentiments of their songs, and the more middle-of-the-road pop/rock approach that many of them seem to take, don’t seem to have changed much since then, despite a few noticeable shifts in their sound. These days, you know a formulaic Switchfoot chorus when you hear it, and while I had already noted this problem even on some of TBL’s better tracks, it’s become downright maddening in more recent years, with the band increasingly replacing their offbeat, alternative rock sensibilities with a straight-ahead, quirkless, and almost cookie-cutter approach that seems to suggest they’re trying a little too hard to score radio hits on the order of something like “Dare You to Move”.

Fading West, their newest album, was the first new music on my radar in 2014. I honestly didn’t expect anything amazing after 2011’s largely predictable Vice Verses, but I felt that there would probably be something different about this album, simply due to what it meant to the band. They had recorded a documentary, also called Fading West, in which they traveled the world, seeking out some of its best surfing beaches and getting acquainted with the locals along the way, and I figured the accompanying album might incorporate some surf and/or world music influences. The band was stoked about the recording process and had discussed different methods that they tried in the studio, so I figured this would be a break from the norm in some fashion. But this only set me up for massive disappointment on my first listen to the album. The most dominant feature here is the programming and other bits of electronic tinkering in the studio – something which isn’t totally foreign to Switchfoot’s sound, nor do I view it as the arch enemy of rock music today (as evidenced by several electronic-oriented rock and synthpop bands that I absolutely adore), but that doesn’t really play to Switchfoot’s strengths as implemented here. It may, in fact, be their least rock-oriented album of them all, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its fair share of upbeat songs with incredibly catchy choruses, or that the three guitarists in the band don’t make noticeable contributions. I just feel like on Vice Verses and especially on this album, they’ve allowed the rhythm section (drummer Chad Butler, bassist Tim Foreman, and keyboardist/programmer/multiple-hats-wearer Jerome Fontamillas) to take over in a way that could be flattering for some bands, but that doesn’t really emphasize the things Switchfoot is good at. If you look back at the first albums that introduced new members beyond the original trio of Jon, Tim, and Chad, you’ll find the group’s best pop album (The Beautiful Letdown, Jerome’s in-studio debut) and their best rock album (Nothing Is Sound, which prominently featured newly-recruited lead guitarist Drew Shirley). Adding new members happened as their sound became more mainstream, but it still produced solid results at the time, and it felt more like it was helping to define what it sounded like when bands with Christian roots found their footing in the mainstream, rather than them imitating a lot of mainstream sounds as a cheap way to bring new followers onboard. Fading West, by comparison, sounds like it imitates an awful lot more than it innovates, particularly in its stubborn attempts to beg audiences to sing along during naggingly familiar-sounding choruses, or one particularly unfortunate track where they sound like they’re ripping off a currently popular band. More than any other Switchfoot album, I’ve had trouble picking out highlights on this one due to the initial bad taste it left in my mouth. Further listens have revealed a number of agreeable songs, perhaps enough to populate a strong EP, but honestly, there’s nothing here that I’d consider an instant classic.

Lyrically, the surfing motif seems to only crop up at the end of the album. The rest of it, quite frustratingly, is populated with these very big-sounding anthems about finding out who you are, fighting for the things you believe in, changing the world, and all that sort of stuff that might have challenged us to try harder back when we first heard such songs on Learning to Breathe… but nowadays, the un-ironically inspirational approach has grown stale. It bugs me because I know Foreman can be more profound than this, and I thought Switchfoot had been releasing their albums independently, or at least with minimal record label meddling, since 2009’s Hello Hurricane, so I’m honestly not sure where the pressure to play it safe is coming from. I wouldn’t say that any of these songs are bad (or at least, none would be if I didn’t know what was being plagiarized), but there’s a lack of risk-taking here that seriously bums me out. This may not bother you if you’re new to Switchfoot, and maybe I’ve just got to face the fact that they’re one of those bands like Skillet where their older fans are going to phase out over the years as they try to figure out how to capture the attention of younger generations. I’m certainly not saying I want them to sound like The Beautiful Letdown forever. The problem is exactly the opposite of that – I want to hear progress, and not just a previously stated thesis reiterated in the hopes that different ears will hear it. Maybe part of my problem lies in how they state that thesis – here more than on any other album, Foreman has annoying habit of basing a chorus around some sort of declarative, superficially profound-sounding statement, and then failing to follow it up with the essay that proves the premise. It reduces songs that were likely inspired by profound experiences in the band members’ lives to bumper-sticker cliches, and while I’m glad the band tends to avoid the “Christian lingo” cliches common to many of their counterparts, it’s not that encouraging to hear one-size-fits all, sorta-spiritual cliches from them, either. Good songwriting that zooms in more on the details of the story and the emotions felt while experiencing it often doesn’t even have to spell out the moral at the end of it. Whatever the case, most of this album sounds like Foreman could have written it in his sleep. Maybe this is just one of those cases where shuffling several projects on and off of the back burner results in at least one of them not getting fully cooked.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS

1. Love Alone Is Worth the Fight
The distinct feeling of discouragement I get from this album largely stems from the underwhelming nature of its opening track. It’s meant to be a big, crowd-rousing anthem, which is the sort of song most Switchfoot albums start with, but this one feels a lot more like the sort of mid-tempo follow-up single you’d have found at track 3 or 4 on past albums. It’s not inherently bad, but replacing the expect pounding drums and roaring riff with a vocal loop and some extremely generic drum programming and power chords was definitely a bad move. Foreman can’t quite seem to meld the quirkier delivery of its verse with the more drawn-out notes of its chorus – a chorus which fails to be terribly catchy due to having so few words and some rather half-hearted “whoa”s in place of something more intelligent that the same band might have thrown in there only a few years prior. You get the feeling he wants the audience to pump their fists in unison when he gets to the hook – “Love alone is worth the FIGHT!”, but there just isn’t enough energy leading up to or coming out of that moment to really make us feel anything.
Grade: C+

2. Who We Are
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…” The syncopated count-off that leads into Drew Shirley’s funky riff is hands-down one of the catchiest and all-around most fun moments that I can recall on any Switchfoot album, ever. It sets us up nicely for a total party of a song, one that makes great use of the programming and live instrumentation, in a less stilted way than what we heard on Vice Verses. The band brought in their kids to do background vocals here, and while the lyrics about discovering your own identity as you grow older aren’t exactly college thesis material, it’s a good case of the lyrical attitude fitting the musical performance. Unfortunately, this excellent set-up in the verse is betrayed by an almost unforgivably generic chorus, which exchanges the beat-heavy syncopation and all-around party atmosphere for more of Switchfoot’s standard anthem-izing. These guys are really good at anthem-izing – don’t get me wrong. I just wish they were still brave enough to create a different mood for a song and actually go with it for the entire duration of the song, instead of reverting back to the middle of their well-traveled road.
Grade: B+

3. When We Come Alive
A mellower tempo and a bit of stadium-sized drum echo set us up for the sort of slowly-building ballad that might evoke the sort of emotional response that “Dare You to Move” or “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” once did. Unfortunately, the song never really gets there, due to its shockingly generic lyrics which never go much deeper than vague references to yesterday’s tragedies and another “crowd-participation-by-design” chorus that defiantly vows to live life to the fullest in the here and now. These themes have become incredibly tiresome for Switchfoot, but they’re usually better about giving such songs a reason to exist – a specific point of confession or conviction to start from. This one’s broad enough to apply to absolutely anything, and while its huge group vocal hook is certainly appealing, and the big sound of it will be music to the ears of mainstream radio deejays, I can’t see myself forming much of a personal attachment to it.
Grade: B-

4. Say It Like You Mean It
The only true home run on Fading West also reveals its biggest weakness – it’s a highly kinetic song with a funked-out bass riff and a rapid-fire, stuttering rhythm that immediately hooks any listener looking for the rockier side of Switchfoot which seems to be steadily vanishing as the years go by. But those same listeners will likely already be familiar with Hello Hurricane‘s “The Sound”, whose overall, er, sound is shamelessly recycled here. They might have done it one better, since Foreman’s almost-rapping is a better fit for the momentum of the song than the sung verses were in that earlier song, and the chorus punches you in the gut exactly where it needs to, daring someone to put their money where their mouth is. Even though the more cynical side of Switchfoot is expressed here, the song is still a refreshing change of pace for the band, right down to the end where it dissolves into a bit of a Middle Eastern motif.
Grade: A

5. The World You Want
The intro to this song, which sounds like Foreman is singing around a campfire with a bunch of kids he met in some foreign country, is one of the only hints at the international origins of this album’s intended sound. That doesn’t last long before the pounding of drums announces “BIG SLOW DRAMATIC SONG!!!”, rendering that fun intro rather inappropriate, and we’re once again regaled with inspirational quotes about how each one of us can change the world every day we’re alive. I’d give this one a skip for its frustrating vagueness and its weakly-soaring chorus melody, if not for the bridge, which starts to hint at something a little more profound: “What you say is your religion/How you say it’s your religion/Who you love is your religion/How you love is your religion/All your science, your religion/All your hatred, your religion/All your wars are your religion/Every breath is your religion.” Now some of that may sound like new-age bunk, and this’ll probably be cause for them to get raked over the coals by those who prefer for bands with Christians in them to not play coy when it comes to expressing their own beliefs. But looking at some of the hateful and misguided things that have been said and done by people who claim to profess the same beliefs that I do and that the members of Switchfoot do, I think the song makes a good point about actions speaking louder than words.
Grade: B-

6. Slipping Away
One of the most confoundingly dull songs on the album is also one of its poppiest, existing in that space where it’s programmed and syncopated, but not nearly urban enough to be a nod to hip-hop; guitars are present, but they’re too chimey and blend into the keyboards too much for it to pass as rock; electronic vocal effects appear here and there, but the production isn’t innovative enough for it to appeal to fans of more sophisticated synthpop or electronica. It exists squarely in the middle of everything, and much like its lyrics about growing older and fearing you’ve lost the zealous fire of your youth, the entire creative process behind it feels rather half-hearted. It’a a superficially pleasant listen – you’ll find few reasons to complain as it slides on by, until you realize there isn’t much of anything to remember about it later on.
Grade: C-

7. Ba55
Probably the boldest song on the album, in terms of demonstrating a creative new approach to how they make music, is this one, which as you might surmise from the odd title, is built around a pretty cool bass riff. Tim Foreman might just stand out on this album more than he has since Switchfoot’s early days, and while there’s nothing particularly complex about the brooding five-note sequence that he loops through over and over, the band builds on it in interesting ways, for once freeing themselves from the need to create radio-friendly anthems with an obvious verse/chorus structure, and to just enjoy the exploratory journey of jamming and playing around with various textures. I love the fuzz-box effect on the guitars here, particularly when they lead to one of the few true “guitar solos” that I can recall on any Switchfoot album. Paradoxically, I hate that very same effect as it gets applied to Jon Foreman’s voice, which gets overbearing as the track wears on – possibly the one thing that keeps the song from being a stand-out game-changer for the band. The lyrics are abstract and rather minimal, mostly revolving around the central theme “I believe you’re the fire that can burn me clean”, but this is the sort of song where the feeling it evokes says more than the actual words, as if the band put itself into a metaphorical crucible, trying to burn away the excess and see what was there at the core. It’s an interesting glimpse into a creative process that I wish they had applied more liberally throughout the album.
Grade: B+

8. Let It Out
A true flash of inspiration in the previous song unfortunately gives way to the most basic tendency of any band struggling to assert its relevance in modern pop culture – this is one of the few moments I can think of where, beyond just trying to stake a claim on pop radio listeners’ hearts and minds with obvious radio-friendly choruses, they take it a step too far and actually ape someone else’s hit song. You won’t realize it at first, since the driving guitar riff, the party-like atmosphere and the driving beat could just as easily be the 2010s version of a song like “Gone” – nothing terribly weird by Switchfoot’s standards post-Beautiful Letdown. But then you get a whiff of the snare drum march beneath it and a shockingly familiar melody followed by both the piano and the vocals, and it dawns on you – this song is fun. I mean the band, not the mood – they’ve shamelessly ripped off “Some Nights”, and they’re hoping that since it doesn’t have an obviously auto-tuned group vocal hook, we’ll be too busy bobbing our heads and singing along to notice. I’ve expressed my fair share of disdain for fun. going down a similarly ill-advised road to fame by ditching their previous musical personality in favor of overbearing programming and faux hip-hop production, but the song “Some Nights” has actually grown on me since then, and while I still think Switchfoot is a better band overall, it’s doubly embarrassing for a song to sound like fun. without covering the same amount of lyrical ground a typical fun. song would. I’d take Nate Ruess‘s musings on missing his mom and his friends getting high and so forth over this generic “Live your life out loud, yay!” sort of drivel any day.
Grade: C

9. All or Nothing at All
I like the subtle guitar harmonics that open up the song, but they don’t set it up for anything that is all that creatively constructed once the song gets going. Another generically poppy beat drives this one, inappropriately combined with the sort of “synth wipes” you’d hear in a much more danceable song – they don’t work so well in a mid-tempo Switchfoot anthem. This commits a similar sin to “Love Alone Is Worth the Fight” in that it falls into the no-man’s-land between engaging up-tempo song and power ballad, clearly wanting to tug our heartstrings with its encouraging message about giving your all to keep a marriage or some sort of relationship alive, but falling flat due its unbearable use of cliches. The chorus tries to hit us right away with one of those classic “things are best when they seem to be at their worst” sorts of sentiments that crop up frequently in Switchfoot’s lyrics: “You feel your heart beat loudest when it’s breaking.” But this time around, it sounds ripped from the playbook of some motivational speaker with nothing else present to back up the meaning of that phrase. Even the declaration that gives the song its title, “I want it all or nothing at all” seems like one of those syntactically meaningless catchphrases like “double down” or “give 110%” that a football coach would use to get his team pumped before the big game. Come on guys, I can get one-size-fits-all life-coaching from tons of other Top 40 bands.
Grade: C-

10. Saltwater Heart
So, this album was supposed to be about surfing or something, right? We’re at the second-to-last track, and it’s honestly the first time I can recall that this “theme” has even popped up. (Not that riding a wave and feeling at one with the ocean is a terribly new idea for a song – Pearl Jam seems to include one on every album these days. But still, I’ll take just about anything that gives Switchfoot more of a personality than their usual “Yay, life!” antics.) This one’s refreshingly upbeat, still very anthemic, but a bit more inventive and idiosyncratic in the percussion department and in Foreman’s delivery of the lyrics. The idea that he’s at home out among the waves because his body is mostly composed of water, and sense of peace and purpose this brings him, makes the song relatable to someone like me who might not be a surfer, but who still enjoys outdoor hobbies like hiking for similar reasons. The chorus has that top-down, summer-road-trip, best-day-ever sort of feeling to it, and it’s a good example of Switchfoot being radio-friendly while still expressing some degree of individuality. There’s a fair amount of keyboards and programming and stuff here, too, but none of it feels invasive – I can imagine a slightly rawer version of this song fitting in on Oh! Gravity or even Learning to Breathe.
Grade: B+

11. Back to the Beginning Again
The first song that the band composed for this project ironically ended up closing out the album, and while I like it a lot more than the opener, it definitely fits better here. Switchfoot hasn’t had a really strong closing track on an album since the trifecta of Learning to Breathe‘s underrated “Living Is Simple”, The Beautiful Letdown‘s graceful “Twenty-Four” and Nothing Is Sound‘s pensive and unexpectedly climactic “Daisy”. And this is the first time I can recall them ending an album on an up-tempo track, taking the happy jog of “Saltwater Heart” and bringing it to a full sprint once the chorus gets going. A little bit of playing around with the time signature as the song’s offbeat intro segues into its verse is appreciated – you might lose your place, but it’s the most inventive they’ve been in that department since the phenomenal “Dirty Second Hands” (which this song sounds nothing like, so don’t get your hopes too high if you’re like me and consider that song to be the pinnacle of the band’s creative efforts thus far). Foreman’s lyrics seem to be more descriptive than usual, rolling images of the beautiful and broken down places he’s visited into an overall image of his broken yet redeemed soul. So the song plays as a prayer, albeit a very excited one, closing the album on a fitting sentiment: “I want to feel the wind at my back again.” If only the rest of the album had lived up to the standard of these last two tracks and a few other notable standouts, it might have succeeded in getting me in the mood to reclaim some of that lost youth and zeal and vitality that Foreman has spent so much time singing about here.
Grade: A-

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Love Alone is Worth the Fight $.50
Who We Are $1.25
When We Come Alive $.75
Say It Like You Mean It $1.75
The World You Want $.75
Slipping Away $0
Ba55 $1.25
Let It Out $.25
All or Nothing at All $0
Saltwater Heart $1.25
Back to the Beginning Again $1.50
TOTAL: $9

BAND MEMBERS:
Jon Foreman: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Tim Foreman: Bass, backing vocals
Chad Butler: Drums
Jerome Fontamillas: Keyboards, rhythm guitar
Drew Shirley: Lead guitar

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
https://play.spotify.com/album/1GyzM6vN5fWs2RDCLmJTIz

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.switchfoot.com
http://www.facebook.com/switchfoot

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