Artist: Jon Foreman
Album: The Wonderlands: Darkness & Dawn
In Brief: While Darkness seems to drift a bit from the structure and purpose of The Wonderlands, Dawn brings the project around to a comforting and satisfying conclusion.
Picking up right where we left off as the last rays of the waning sun disappeared into the black ocean on Shadows, the last two EPs in Jon Foreman‘s The Wonderlands collection find the mood of the project swinging rather wildly back and forth over the course of the Darkness EP, which curiously has 7 tracks instead of the expected 6. Perhaps this third EP is guilty of dipping back into some of the hope and brightness expected on Dawn a bit too early, and it’s certainly the most disjointed of the four discs. Yet when Dawn finally comes around, I do end up feeling like the project wraps up as strongly as Summer did on Foreman’s seasonal EPs. Throughout the trials and tribulations and questioning the depths of one’s own faith, there’s an implicit promise made in some of The Wonderlands‘ moodiest songs that he makes good on when there’s a sunrise to celebrate again.
As on the first two EPs, a cavalcade of producers and guest vocalists/musicians who show up to help out, making nearly every track feel distinctive from its neighbors. The contrast from one track to the next is perhaps the most glaring on Darkness, where I really find myself questioning if all the songs fit the theme due to the mildly upbeat and serene nature of some of them – Shadows might actually be a darker set of songs, thematically speaking. But I’m still impressed that stylistically, Foreman rarely settles for the plain and simple “guy with a lone acoustic guitar” setting that he could have easily fallen back on for the lion’s share of these songs. Instrumentally, there are some really interesting things going on if you’re willing to pay attention to what’s happening in the dimly lit background. Dawn, as expected, is a little more upfront with the instrumental diversity, finishing incredibly strong with one of the collection’s most upbeat and delightful songs. It’s a lot to dig into if you’re trying to digest all 13 of these tracks – and especially all 25 from the collection at large – at once, which I suspect may be Foreman’s real reason for initially releasing them as bite-sized digital EPs. Whether you binge or savor each track individually, I do think there’s a certain necessity to take in the entire project in the order it was intended, even taking into account the few songs that might be slight missteps, because it makes the finale that much sweeter.
DISC THREE: DARKNESS
1. Come Home
The ballad that opens Darkness is pretty far from the immediate accessibility of “Terminal”, and it took me a while to appreciate its slower, more somber pace and the unique instrumentation behind it. Piano and (I’m assuming) dulcimer are the lead instruments here, but there’s also some sort of light, melodic percussion that sounds like some sort of metallic, piped instrument that you hit with a mallet. It’s not loud, but it fits the moodier feel of the song quite well. This song might be building on the theme of songs like “Caroline” and perhaps even “Ghost Machine”, describing its prodigal daughter character as a ghost and expressing a very simple wish that she would “come home, back to where your heart is”. As in a lot of Foreman’s songs, when he drops the line “You were born for the dance, not the fight”, I can’t help but feel like he had that inspirational quote swimming around in his head for a while and he was just looking for an excuse to drop it into the song, but darn if it doesn’t tug at my heartstrings all the same. I’m on the fence between merely liking this song and loving it when he switches the rhythm from 6/8 to 5/8 to make the bridge a tad more urgent as he simply sings “You’re fading away, fading away”. I don’t know why, but it gets to me. John Mark Painter (of Fleming & John and more recently, bassist for Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil) did an excellent job with the production here. This one’s very slowly become a favorite.
2. Beautiful (Part II)
The last song was part dirge and part anthem; this song by comparison seems to kick the mournful melody into overdrive. Perhaps it’s just the reverb on the vocals or the more-ragged-than-normal edge on his voice, but in this apparent sequel to Sunlight‘s “You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”, he’s trying to relate to that feeling of being on the brink of despair as a woman, “dress like a funeral” according to his words, ponders whether there’s anyone left out there who loves or cares for her. Despite her best attempts to dress like death warmed over and adopt a macabre personality to fit, Foreman says he can see through it: “You’re so beautiful/You’re just used to being used”. I like that the instrumentation here appreciates when to get all big and dramatic with the strings and glockenspiel and when to leave it stripped down to just a naked voice and guitar. It’s not as strong of a song as its counterpart, but it gets the point across quite well. (Interesting side note: Foreman has labeled each song with a specific hour of the day in the liner notes, and since there are 25 instead of 24, this one is labeled “11:30pm” and it has to share its hour of the day with “Come Home”.)
3. You Alone
One of only two up-tempo tracks is up next – as is Foreman’s general style on this album, it’s still light and acoustic, but the instrumentation actually feels a bit more hopeful and even a little bit playful here, and it’s interesting to me that this is the song that was chosen to represent the midnight hour. The lyrics seem to be a conversation between Foreman, his own soul, and God, which can lead to some pronoun confusion since the “you” in each verse is his soul while the “You alone” in the chorus, who can save his soul, is clearly God. It’s not too hard to figure that out, but it’s still distracting at times. As I mentioned concerning some of the songs on Shadows, the despair and the hope are well-balanced here, with the weariness of his soul “fading out into the jaded crowd” nicely contrasted by a beautiful instrumental bridge in which the instrumentation temporarily gets whipped up into a cute little dance that feels like a nice breather from the dark clouds in the surrounding songs.
4. She Said
Another downcast female character is in the spotlight on this song, which might just barely win out as my favorite on Darkness due to its simple but beautiful piano melody and the slight Eastern tinge that I think I’m hearing in the string arrangement (which brings back memories of “White as Snow” from the Winter EP). This time around I think the character might actually be Foreman’s wife or daughter, since there are hints of him listening in on her conversations with herself and promising to be ever-present though all of her tearful moments. It’s a sweet song of sympathy and devotion. I’m reminded of Foreman’s (and Switchfoot‘s) involvement with the non-profit To Write Love on Her Arms when he sings “Pain feels like a knife, but I’m not giving up on life”, as an affirmation that no matter how much it hurts, he wants her to know her healing will come.
5. Larger Than Life
This is the song that I always seem to overlook. It’s one of the weakest links on the entire project, even though at first glance it’s not terribly different from its surroundings. That might actually be the problem. There’s yet another down-hearted protagonist who thinks he or she has reached the end, and once again Foreman’s trying to be the voice of encouragement, but somehow amidst his acknowledgment of all the weight bearing down on this person, telling them they’re “larger than life” doesn’t really strike me as all that meaningful. The stilted, repetitive melody of the verse also doesn’t mesh well with the more anthemic chorus. There are some nice little bits of plucked strings and other instrumental embellishments here and there but for the most part I find the song forgettable. I guess it beats Switchfoot’s most forgettable middle-of-the-road pop/rock moments, but still, it isn’t great.
6. June & Johnny
One fringe benefit of collaborating with Sean Watkins is that he’ll throw in his sister Sara Watkins, free of charge! I’ve heard Sara perform live with Fiction Family a few times, plus she and her brother both sang on Switchfoot’s song “Circles”, but I think this is the first time Jon and Sara have collaborated without Sean. Fittingly for a song about driving through the dead of night, singing along to the legendary Johnny & June Carter Cash to keep yourself awake, Jon and Sara do a subdued but lovely duet here, to a nimble acoustic guitar rhythm that might get some subtle embellishment from Sara’s violin, but overall it’s meant to be a simple folk song, nothing flashy. I actually didn’t even realize it was Sara the first few times through, just because she’s most singing harmony vocal and her voice isn’t that loud in the mix. With its promise that “I;ll hold you all my life like a memory in the back of my mind”, I wouldn’t even think the quite optimism of this song was a good fit for Darkness, but when the lyric says “Laughing three o’clock at night”, I guess I can’t argue.
7. Inner Peace
This one sticks out like a sore thumb for so many reasons. First of all, it’s track 7 on a collection that seems tailor-made to be broken into four equal groupings of six each. Second, even though it’s technically about 20 seconds longer than “June & Johnny”, it feels like a really short track, probably because there’s no real rhythm to it and most of it just sort of seeps on by in a murmur. Third, it’s a bit of a waste of a favor from a relatively big name collaborator – Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin stopped by to play… something on this song, and I honestly couldn’t tell you what, because there are some horns and strings, but they just end up feeling like a blurred wash of color, like unreadable billboards as a subway train whooshes on by. (Sadly, he was apparently not asked to participate in the song “My Coffin”.) Fourth, Foreman is in “Drop an inspirational quote in out of context and hope it fits” mode on the chorus, which honestly feels like a rejected Switchfoot lyric: “How can we be ourselves when we don’t know who we are?/I can’t blame myself on anyone else this time.” It just feels like too generic a way to wrap up the soul-searching and confession he’s doing in the verses. There’s one song too many on this project, and I think he could have easily dropped either this song or “Larger Than Life” and it would be no worse for the wear.
DISC FOUR: DAWN
As the sun begins to rise, Foreman thinks back to the good old days, when he was just getting his start as a starving artist, and apparently he and his wife had little to live on but love itself. Usually I’m cynical about these sorts of songs, because living paycheck to paycheck so long as you can be together sounds a whole lot more romantic than it actually is, but somehow he makes it work. The highly quotable lyric “I want to be rich in memories, not money” certainly helps, as the implication isn’t that money’s a bad thing; it’s just a means to an end and not something that you need to have amassed a ton of in order to make life meaningful. Instrumentally, this song fits the brighter colors of the sun slowly illuminating the landscape – there are keyboards and a bit of mandolin atop the simple guitar chords, and Kanene Doheny Pipkin offers a lovely harmony vocal, which is something she knows a thing or two about given her dayjob as a member of The Lone Bellow. The only real misstep here is rhyming “money” with “honey”, since since it’s a love song that’s specifically about money being less important than the couple’s memories, I’ll let it slide. Once again, Ryan O’Neal of Sleeping at Last produced, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that would fit in comfortably on one of his own EPs.
2. Run Free
A number of tracks on this project seem to be subtle callbacks to earlier songs in Foreman’s discography. This one in particular brings to mind Summer‘s “Deep in Your Eyes (There Is a River)”, due to the bright tone of the piano and the lyrics which specifically mention running like a river. The song is more Scriptural than romantic in this case, hitting us right off the bat with “The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me, to tell the good news to the poor.” Somehow it never seems didactic or disingenuous when Foreman does this sort of thing in a solo song. Because he’s been specific about how he’s personally experienced freedom in Christ and knows he doesn’t deserve it, it feels 100% genuine when he calls us to cast off the sorrow and be open to the joy, when in the hands of a lot of other CCM artists it might feel escapist or otherwise detached from reality. As I’ve noted in a few other songs on this project, the strings are more playful – I love that they’re an important element on this project without the arrangements being cliched or overwhelming.
Rhythmically speaking, this meditation on Romans 8:38-39 – in a nutshell, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – might be one of Foreman’s most complex songs to date. It deceives me into thinking it’s a simple 6/8, but then I try to count it off and realize he’s missing a beat here and there. Only when the somewhat whimsical horn section comes in do I start to realize the pattern behind what initially sounded like erratic fingerpicking on the guitar. I think a song with more simplistic/Biblical lyrics like this one really needs an interesting arrangement to help it stand out. I find that I’m much more open to the meditative nature of it when the listening experience isn’t a dull one. Curiously enough, when I was discussing a few of the songs on Darkness earlier, I described them as “dirges”, and I had completely forgotten that the lyric here says “We face death all day long/Sang the dirge for a song/Who accuses you now/Now your curse has run out.” I’m really impressed at how consistently this last set of songs has helped to pull so many of the thematic threads together into a cohesive whole.
4. When We Collide
Many a songwriter has written about longing to come off the road and return home for some sweet, sweet lovin’ far better than anything they could get from a groupie or some other sort of fling. Foreman’s take on the subject is, as expected, a bright and cheery one. With a harp and some flutes and other woodwinds flitting about, the arrangement sort of reminds me of Jónsi‘s song “Go Do” when it really gets going. Chad Howat from Paper Route produced this one, and in keeping with some of the other familiar names that appear among the production credit, it’s not what I would expect given the source. (Not that I would mind Paper Route working some baroque pop elements into their electronic rock sound. It just isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of them.)
5. Mercy’s War
If you’re gonna do the baroque pop thing and experiment with different producers, one that should definitely come to mind is Jeremy Larson, the man who plays pretty much everything on his own records and who can whip up a gorgeously intricate horn and/or string arrangement flexible enough to suit several different genres. Here, he seems to contribute a few woodwind instruments such as oboe and bassoon while Jeff Coffin once again plays the sax, and the slow jazzy/bluesy feel of the song is definitely a good use of their talents. The overall structure here reminds me of the kind of earthy love song Over the Rhine might come up with, while the lyrics remind me of Foreman’s own revenge in that they speak of the unrelenting love of God to a man who has been little more than a wretch and a rebel. Foreman is almost poetic in how he describes his own stubbornness here: “I went looking for the fig leaves/And you asked me what they’re for/I was building up a wall/And you offered me a door/I was hoping for silver spoons/When you handed me a sword/Oh, the wonderful blood of Jesus.” I love how a few backing vocals chime in on the refrain – it’s like he’s borrowed a page from an old hymnal and applied it to his own personal experience.
6. Before Our Time
Since this last EP has invited back several previous participants, it made perfect sense to close out Dawn with another Sara Watkins collaboration. Here her violin is in “fiddle” mode, which is what she was born to do – tear it up to the tune of a rousing folk/rock track. Interestingly, the song counts down the passing months, noting that the year is almost over, even though the theme of The Wonderlands is a single day and his previous set of EPs was meant to cover the passing of a year. I strongly suspect that it was intentional how much these newer songs call back to his older ones. While the finite nature of life and making the most of the only one you’ve got is a bit old hat for the Switchfoot frontman, it works effectively enough here as he and Sara sing, “Time is illusion/Time is a curse/Time is all these things and worse/But our time is now/Let us sing before our time runs out.” Short but sweet, it’s really the perfect way to close out the project, as the sun has now fully risen on a new day and Foreman (and hopefully the audience) are left in a full-on carpe diem state of mind.
As a fun footnote, Foreman decided as he was working on this project than when it was all wrapped up and out there for public consumption, he’d celebrate by playing a series of 25 mini-concerts in 24 hours, 3 songs apiece at different venues all over San Diego, ranging from his favorite beaches, bookstores, and coffee shops to his custom-built studio. He actually pulled it off, and there’s some scattered evidence on YouTube showing how much fun he had cherry-picking songs from all over his solo discography, as well as Switchfoot’s and Fiction Family’s, for the presumably heavily coffee-fueled concert binge. I have to admire the man for being so restlessly creative and perhaps even a bit of a workaholic in situations where most of us mere mortals would collapse into a puddle of lethargic whining at the mere thought of such a daunting task.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Come Home $1.50
Beautiful (Part II) $1
You Alone $1.25
She Said $1.50
Larger Than Life $.50
June & Johnny $1
Inner Peace $.25
Run Free $1.25
When We Collide $1.25
Mercy’s War $1.75
Before Our Time $2
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: