Artist: Jon Foreman
Album: The Wonderlands: Sunlight & Shadows
In Brief: The first 2 discs in this 4-disc collection showcase a variety of instrumentation and production styles that easily match the high bar set by Foreman’s seasonal EPs back in 2008. It might be a little mellow for Switchfoot fans, but it’s easily twice as deep as most of Switchfoot’s recent material.
I’ve joked on several occasions that Jon Foreman must never sleep. I’ve admired his hard-working ethos ever since he put out a humble little side project based on the four seasons in 2007/08, and then promptly followed that up by bringing Fiction Family to life in early 2009 by way of long-distance collaboration with his pretend brother Sean Watkins. (I mean that their familial relationship is pretend, not that Sean Watkins himself is a figment of Foreman’s imagination. Though making up an entire person and then crediting songs to him is not something I’d put past Foreman at this point.) Normally you’d expect such side projects to be mere one-offs, especially when a singer/songwriter’s dayjob is still going strong. Switchfoot may not have the attention of the mainstream that they once did, but they’re still cranking out records, though to be honest, their aim to be more pop-friendly and accessible to the everyman in more recent years has killed the creative edge of a lot of their material on their more recent albums. Fiction Family has managed a second record since its inception, and now Foreman’s got a string of four solo EPs once again to match that oh-so-good first set from all those years ago. I’m glad that he’s trying to juggle all three of these projects, because lyrically, I feel like the non-Switchfoot stuff he’s put out lately shows way more of his personality.
Foreman’s latest project, The Wonderlands, is broken down into four different times of day: Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn. 24 hours, 24 songs – seems like a good enough fit, doesn’t it? (Though there are actually 25 songs, but we’ll get to that when I review the second half of the collection – for now I’m just focusing on Sunlight & Shadows, which were physically released together as a 2-disc set.) Much like the seasonal collection, there’s a general mood and feel that vaguely separates each set from the next, but there’s not necessarily a direct story thread linking each individual song chronologically. While the mood is generally brighter on the Sunshine disc and the Shadows disc is a little more preoccuiped with death and the things that happen in more dimly lit areas of our live, you’re not always going to be able to individually identify a “sunny” song versus a “shadowy” song if you have the entire project on shuffle, because Foreman isn’t overly pedantic about that sort of thing. It may be more that a certain song idea came to him at a certain time of day – I don’t know the man’s exact creative process, but it would not surprise me at all if he just camped out on a San Diego beach for 24 hours straight with a journal and a camera, taking snapshots of the changing light and scribbling down whatever ideas struck him as the day bled into night and then back again. As in a lot of Switchfoot’s work, themes of making the most of your light and appreciating the daylight you’ve got left recur throughout the project, but there are also more personal songs, love songs, prayers for long lost friends, meditations on Scripture, even a bit of social commentary. It’s this willingness to go wherever the muse takes him that makes me far more excited about this project than I would be about a new Switchfoot album.
Musically, as you’d know to expect if you’ve heard Foreman’s previous solo work, this is a lot mellower than your average Switchfoot record. Foreman generally starts from an acoustic guitar or piano and works his way up, which at times was a liability on his earlier solo albums because it made the whole affair a bit of a sleepy one. But my ears definitely perked up whenever he brought in more varied instrumentation, and here he seems to enforce than notion of varying the sound from track to track by bringing in a different producer for nearly every one. When doing this, the commitment to a mellower and more spacious sound is actually a strength rather than a liability, because a bunch of catchy up-tempo songs in markedly different genres could make an album feel like a desperate hodgepodge, but having that meditative thread running throughout each one really helps to give the record a unified feel despite how many different cooks Foreman cycled in and out of his kitchen. Ultimately, I’d say that Sunlight is the strongest EP of the four, but Shadows has a lot of interesting textures going for it, and I think it’s the willingness to explore both the dark and light textures that holds my interest even when a song might initially seem too sparse or not have enough melodic punch to grab me right away. I’ve easily listened to these two EPs more times in a few months than I’ve listened to Switchfoot’s Fading West in the almost two years that it’s been out. Why Foreman seems to think his biggest audience won’t be interested in his most personal and insightful material is beyond me, but I’m sure glad he has an outlet for it.
DISC ONE: SUNLIGHT
The Wonderlands hit me right away with the absolute best song on the entire project. The unusual chord progression incorporates both major and minor versions of the same chord, which is something I don’t hear in popular music that often, and the chorus melody nicely maintain the tension by jumping to unexpected chords in a way I don’t think of heard since Jars of Clay‘s “Overjoyed” back in 1997. The plucked strings and ticking percussion do an excellent job of making us feel like time is slowly ticking away, and the available time to do something meaningful with our lives right along with it. I’ve heard Foreman muse on the finite nature of life several times, but here he sums it up perhaps more succinctly and eloquently than he ever has: “Some folks die in offices one day at a time/They could live a hundred years, but their soul’s already dying/Don’t let your spirit die before your body does.” In the chorus, he describes as as “Living souls with terminal hearts, flickering like candles, fatally flawed in the image of God”. While there’s definitely an Ecclesiastical tone to it – which is summed up nicely by the Scripture reading in the song’s bridge (which quite strangely changes up the rhythm and melody, bringing in a female voice to do the reading). The song’s infectious, and I can’t get it out of my head – it’s one of the best things Foreman’s written for any of his various projects.
2. The Mountain
This song feels simpler at first, like something from the Fall EP, since it’s more Foreman fingerpicking a soft acoustic ballad, though it flows quite beautifully and never feels slow or tedious despite its mellow nature. A string section adds a nice accent without overwhelming the song – it’s only in the song’s coda that they really take over and become a defining element of the song. I’ve noticed on several of Foreman’s solo songs that temptation, usually in a feminine form, seems to stand at odds with his faith, and this is one of the best examples of that trend: “She’s a pretty devil in disguise/The devil’s in the details of her eyes/She’s a blurry vision in a dress tonight/Your tongue is mixing drinks like truths and lies.” Despite the feeling that overcoming this temptation is like moving an entire mountain, the song brims over with subtle optimism, since the ability of faith to move strong mountains is exactly what Jesus promised us.
3. You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are
Being downtrodden, but never down for the count, is a theme that crops up a lot in Switchfoot’s work, and while I’d never mistake this for a Switchfoot song, it definitely stands out due to its anthemic quality, its whistles and strings and percussion and its bright piano chords marching confidently forward (seriously, it makes me think of a parade for some reason) despite all of the hardships it describes happening to a person who can’t seem to understand her own value. Foreman is affirming the beauty hidden deep within this woman who seems to have grown cynical and learned to feel ugly about herself over the years. What’s interesting to me is that despite the catchy chorus melody, the lyrics change every time – he might have sacrificed a little sing-along-ability for the sake of including more detail in the lyrics, but honestly that’s a move I wish Switchfoot would make a little more often, as downplaying some of the simplistic repetition would make some of their work feel more personal and less generic.
You’d never confuse Jon Foreman for Bob Dylan, but every now and then when he strips down to a few simple chords and the truth (and a harmonica!), his raspy voice makes it easy to pinpoint which of his musical heroes he’s channeling. The little details in some of his songs can be tug at the heartstrings, especially when he molds a story around a female protagonist who has somehow lost her way – perhaps there’s no better example than “Somebody’s Baby” on the Winter EP – and while the story isn’t quite as tragic here, he’s still addressing some sort of a runaway teenager, or perhaps a celebrity starlet going off the deep end – type of situation where his heart breaks for someone whose whereabouts are currently unknown to him. “Now and then, you’re in the magazines/The tabloid rags and the trash machines/They’re spitting on the image of the memories/Of the girl with her pigtails flying.” He knows that she longs for her childhood innocence but it’s gotten lost in an avalanche of whatevers and middle fingers that she constantly throws back at the world around her. He refrains from sermonizing about what she should do; like the patient father of a prodigal daughter he simple wants to know that she is OK and waits to welcome her back whenever she should have a change of heart.
5. Patron Saint of Rock and Roll
This is absolutely brilliant stuff. You know how Steven Colbert can be in the middle of a humorous monologue about politics or popular culture and then, in one fell swoop, use a person or organization’s own words to demonstrate how hypocritical they are? This song is like that. It takes aim at the self-congratulatory, conspicuous consumption-oriented, keep-the-other-guy-from-taking-my-toys-away nature of a lot of American Christianity, and Foreman even goes to far as to suggest that the blind patriotism masquerading as religion is enough to make him question whether he even belongs in these here United States. That’d get him a slap on the hand from the gatekeepers at Christian radio, but what with this being such an unconventional song with its “swingy” rhythm and its whimsical horns and strings almost goading the audience into thinking they’re being jeered at, it doesn’t stand a chance at fitting their strict format in the first place. (It’s kind of like Switchfoot’s “Company Car” in that sense, except not guitar-oriented.) The third views is where the most efficient skewering happens, and I think it’s worth quoting in full: “There’s a park downtown where the homeless get ignored/Where the church next door is a crowd singing ‘Blessed are the poor’/Where the Mercedes drive away, muttering, ‘druggies, drunks and whores’/Where the bumper sticker displays ‘My copilot is the Lord’.” Wow. Consider the mic DROPPED.
6. All of God’s Children
Another acoustic ballad – this time perked up a bit by woodwinds – closes out Sunlight. Realism and optimism mingle yet again, as Foreman very lightly hints at some of the violence and accusations of racial bias that have been cluttering our headlines in recent years: “Past the glass, and shotgun shacks/And violent, faceless, racist facts/I believe in a world that’s made clean.” The song isn’t so much concerned with making us face society’s ills as it is with reminding those of us already convinced of them that it takes some genuine risk to get out there and speak some sense into the madness through actions, not words: “Are you really ready to pay for love if it costs you everything?” Strong faith ultimately wins out over of human ugliness – that’s how he’s able to close this set on an optimistic note instead of a cynical one. But the message is more than just a simple assurance that God will sort it all out in time. He will, of course, but we’re meant to be part of that, whether it be by simply handing a cup of water to someone thirsty whose water source has been taken away by someone else in a position of power, or whether it be acting as a catalyst for more peaceful and meaningful dialogue between the haves and the have-nots.
DISC TWO: SHADOWS
1. Ghost Machine
I’ll be honest, I thought this EP opened rather tediously at first. The slow, even strumming and the way Foreman’s voice almost cracked on some of the notes he held a bit longer just weren’t doing it for me, and as he sang of a mysterious machine slowly draining his life away, I couldn’t help but feel like that theme of overcoming temptation (again embodied in female form) was better explored in “The Mountain”. Then I looked up the lyrics and realized what this song was about. “My idolatry is in the pocket of my coat.” “I’m still haunted by the faces on her screen.” Uh-oh, someone’s been sneaking a peek at the dark side of the Internet. It’s not a subject you hear about a whole lot within the actual lyrics of songs by Christian musicians, and when you do they’re usually condemning it from a distance rather than admitting it’s been a personal struggle, so I have a ton of respect for Foreman’s honesty here. It’s incredibly difficult to approach the subject tastefully without being blunt or graphic, so kudos to the artful approach, even if I still think the song’s a bit lethargic. Jeremy Edwardson, who I think used to be the lead singer of The Myriad, helped produce this one, and he’s given it a fair amount of haunting reverb, which is something I’ve only gained an appreciation for after a great many listens. It emphasizes that feeling of knowing you’re just being used, but still feeling trapped and almost hypnotized, not even really wanting to escape the addiction.
2. My Coffin
I just love it when Foreman plays with unusual time signatures. His previous solo songs “Baptize My Mind” and “The Moon Is a Magnet” are great evidence of this, as is “Dirty Second Hands”, perhaps my favorite Switchfoot song ever. Here, he matches up an off-kilter 7/8 rhythm with a lush arrangement of keys and strings, making for an oddly upbeat song about wondering what it’ll feel like to have his body detach from his soul at the moment of death. It’s dark subject matter and yet, as is often true of Switchfoot’s work, there’s an underlying assurance that he’ll come out safe on the other side even if the journey is a frightening one, and I guess that explains the lighter mood when a song about being lowered into your own coffin could have otherwise been quite harrowing. Ryan O’Neal, a.k.a. Sleeping at Last, took care of the production duties here, and it’s an entirely different beast from the previous collaboration between the two on SAL’s song “Birthright”. I’m all for the two working together more often, because this is about as intriguing of a meeting of the minds as I could have hoped for.
3. Fake Your Own Death
Darren King is a musician who I have tons of respect for, chiefly as the insanely fast and precise drummer for MuteMath, but also as one of the songwriters and general creative forces behind both that band and Sucré. His production gig for a Foreman definitely takes a turn that I wouldn’t expect, though – instead of focusing on percussion or rhythm, this song has a sort of “New Orleans funeral procession” sort of woodwind section as a backdrop, which totally fits the subject matter, but which can be a bit atonal and off-putting at times. It’s by far the strangest song on Shadows, maybe on the collection as a whole, and I’d be OK with the overall strangeness if I didn’t feel like Foreman had written a bit of a dud here. Perhaps I’m just not to keen on the idea of faking one’s own death as a way to find a new lease on life. Obviously I don’t think Foreman intends for this advice to be literal – he’s probably singing more about death to one’s old self than actually tricking your friends and family into thinking you’re pushing up daisies so you can start over under some assumed name or whatever. But he’s so caught up in the metaphor that I don’t feel like it makes any sense on a practical level. Only in the second verse, when he sings about his actual death, does it suddenly become meaningful to me: “I don’t need no fancy flowers/I don’t need a big production/When I die paddle, my ashes out to sea.” An entire song based on the notion of how he wants to be remembered when he goes would have been way better than a song about faking death, I think.
4. Good For Me
The instrumentation on this song is more like… acoustic funk? That’s probably an inaccurate description, but I love the more percussive style and how well the bass meshes with the guitar chords. It gives the song more of a primal feeling, even though it’s not a particularly loud or aggressive performance. And then in the chorus, there’s the unexpected inclusion of mariachi trumpets. Foreman’s done this before on “A Mirror Is Harder to Hold” from the Summer EP, and I love it here just as I did there, because it’s a fun little nod to his just-north-of-the-border hometown. Charlie Peacock co-produced this one, and it’s in that same sort of sweet spot between bare-bones folk music and eccentric but catchy pop music that made The Civil Wars‘ two albums so memorable. The lyrics find Foreman asking honest and tough questions about whether the pretty lights and other earthly distractions he’s found himself preoccupied with are helping or hurting him. “Does it bind or set me free? Does it keep me on my knees?” Probably good questions to ask about anything we claim to love in this life.
5. Your Love Is Enough
You can pretty much tell from the title at this point that anything starting with “Your Love Is…” will be more of a straight-up worship song. “Your Love Is Strong” on the Spring EP started the trend, then Switchfoot followed it up with “Your Love Is a Song”. While those sorts of songs strike me as too simplistic when Switchfoot records them, there’s actually something refreshing about their inclusion on Foreman’s solo records – I don’t mind the more direct and straightforward sentiments of praise and thanksgiving expressed to God, because the subject matter throughout the record is so varied that by the time such a song shows up, it feels more like a geniune response to all of the struggle and darkness he’s been honest about up to this point. The instrumentation also gets to be more grandiose on a Foreman solo record, bring in more of the baroque pop elements that he loves so much. This one still falls into more of a predictable pop/soft rock pattern when all is said and done, but I feel like there wouldn’t have been as much room for variance in instrumentation had he saved this song for Switchfoot. Foreman’s stated that he wrote this song to express gratitude at God not being offended by our doubts and questions. It’s because of that sort of honesty and humility that a song like this comes across not as trying to be some sort of squeaky clean holy man, but as an honest reflection on things he’s learning and re-learning about God when life throws curveballs at him that aren’t as easily dismissed by the textbook Christian responses to everything.
6. Siren’s Song
Shadows ends on a bittersweet note as Foreman ponders one of his favorite subjects: the ocean. There’s a mystery to it as he sings this wonderfully melancholy, minor-key tune about the sea being like a siren that calls to him, and he doesn’t know whether venturing out into it will be the end of his life or the beginning of a new adventure. For all of the obvious dark and light elements in the metaphors from previous songs, here the intent is uncertain, as the allure of the sea could be a harbinger of redemption or destruction. The simple finger-picked melody, the restrained but dramatic percussion, and the soft backing vocals all come together beautifully as the song comes to its gentle climax, and it’s all been very lovingly produced by Future of Forestry frontman Eric Owyoung, who apparently also mixed the entire record. While I have decidedly apathetic feelings towards his own band’s work these days (let’s just say they’ve been knocked off of their pedestal in my pantheon of all-time favorite bands), he’s done an excellent job with this one – it reminds me of the sense of mystique and quiet grandeur that I used to get from their best work.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Mountain $1
You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are $1.50
Patron Saint of Rock and Roll $2
All of God’s Children $1.50
Ghost Machine $.75
My Coffin $1.50
Fake Your Own Death $.50
Good For Me $1.25
Your Love Is Enough $1
Siren’s Song $2
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: