Album: Where the Light Shines Through
In Brief: A strong comeback from Switchfoot after a trilogy of mediocre to mildly good albums. It doesn’t radically revamp their sound, but the new things that they do try here do a lot to revitalize it. It just feels like they tried a lot harder with this one, and that’s all I need from a band that could easily just keep repeating itself at this stage in its career.
A few months ago, some good friends asked me if I was interested in accompanying them to see Switchfoot and Relient K in concert. It was one of those situations where I’d have to commit to buying the concert tickets well before the new albums dropped that both bands would be touring for, and while an evening with these friends would always be a good time, I’d had a disappointing enough recent history with both bands that I decided to pass. Relient K’s fall from grace – and subsequent return to it on the album I didn’t know about yet – is well-documented in the review of Air For Free that I just wrote. For Switchfoot’s part, they hadn’t put out anything “bad”, but after three straight albums that were a bit of a mild disappointment, and my lackluster feelings about their live show for Vice Verses when I last saw them in 2011, I figured the best I could expect at this point was more of the same. The band seemed to have arrived at the point where anything new they did would have to live in the shadow of their best-loved hits and fan-favorites from the era of The Beauitful Letdown, and while that’s my personal favorite Switchfoot album, too, some of its themes already felt a bit recycled when it came out in 2003, and that was thirteen years ago, so it’s been increasingly annoying to hear them releasing a lot of straight-ahead pop/rock that seems to cover a lot of the same ground since then, only occasionally branching out into more of an experimental or visceral sound. I’m also a big fan of Learning to Breathe, Nothing Is Sound and the highly underappreciated Oh! Gravity – those albums had their flaws, but the overall sound and mood of each of them felt exciting and unpredictable. Hello Hurricane, Vice Verses, and Fading West all contain some of my all-time favorite Switchfoot tracks, but none of these albums comprised a listening experience that I feel all that excited to go back to after the fact. I figured album #10 would probably continue in that same vein. And what do you know, much like the new Relient K record, Where the Light Shines Through ended up proving me wrong.
Now I’m not going to pretend this is as impressive of an artistic course-correction as Air For Free. I’m over the moon for Relient K’s new one, while I just merely really like Switchfoot’s. Here, I’m probably most impressed by individual tracks that take unexpected sonic twists and turns, than I am by the presentation of these 12 songs as a full, end-to-end listening experience. One or two seem to be holdouts from the previous album’s apparent M.O. of “Just rewrite a shiny, jangly alt-pop-rock tune with vague life-affirming themes, slap a new melody on it, and ship it straight to Christian radio”, which is still annoying, but it happens with far less frequency than it did on Fading West. Thanks to the band’s willingness to let multi-instrumentalists Drew Shirley and Jerome Fontamillas, as well as bassist Tim Foreman and drummer Chad Butler, tinker a little more, I feel like there are even some very straight-ahead pop/rock tracks on this record that manage to come across as exhilarating rather than by-the-numbers. When they really change things up and surprise me (even, oddly enough, on one of the record’s lead singles), they really impress me. I haven’t been this surprised by Switchfoot since the Oh! Gravity days, and I wouldn’t say I’m surprised in the same way as I was on that record, necessarily, but it really does feel like they’re stretching the boundaries of what Switchfoot means as a band.
Lead singer and chief songwriter Jon Foreman has always been the focal point of this group, and given that, I’ve sometimes been frustrated that he’s saved a lot of his more insightful, detail-oriented, and all-around intriguing songwriting for his solo work or Fiction Family. While I do still feel like he’s writing to more of a general audience here, Where the Light Shines Through seems like the band’s attempt to do their absolute best to put a spin on the songs he’s brought to the table that emphasizes the strengths of all five men. The least interesting Switchfoot songs often feel like just Jon Foreman and some supporting players. They may have claimed that Vice Verses was an attempt to put their rhythm section front and center, or that Fading West was the result of some unorthodox recording techniques they hadn’t tried before, but this is the record where I truly hear the difference. Whether it’s off-beat funk/rock, scratchy alt-pop with slightly atonal guitar riffs, or even an out-of-left field collaboration with a hip-hop artist, it never sounds disingenuous because I can tell the band had a blast recording these songs. That feeling of camaraderie overrides the relatively minor complaints I have about some of the material echoing past Switchfoot songs a bit too closely, or just feeling generic enough that it should be beneath them. One of these days I’d love to hear Switchfoot push the envelope on their sound to the point where it truly feels like a new chapter for the band, but I certainly don’t mind accepting Where the Light Shines Through as a victory lap for a band that, for the most part, can still stand proud of the work it’s been doing from the late 90s up until now.
1. Holy Water
For those who were bummed that the electric guitar was relegated to more of a supporting role on Fading West, you ought to appreciate that band’s decision to open the album with a straight-ahead, confident rock anthem like this one. It’s not without its electronic overtones, at times reminding of of the synthesis of rock and electro-pop that characterized a few of the better tracks on Vice Verses. I think this one suits me a little better because it’s not afraid to mix the clean, melodic guitar sounds with the dirtier ones. Drew Shirley gets a brief but grimy solo in the middle eight that I just love. Ironically this is all in service of a song that’s about the cleansing power of rain to wash away the dirt and the muck of a life that’s suffered from years of neglect. We’ve heard tons of baptism metaphors in Christian music before – a few of them even from Foreman himself. It doesn’t really have to be a profound new spin on the topic for it to be believable that he’s entering into this record feeling like a refreshed, new man. That spirit seems to rub off on a listener like me who went into the album with his guard up, but who can now easily let it down because his expectations of what Switchfoot can do in this day and age have been miraculously revived.
This is the one that really caught me off guard, in a good way. The slow fade-in, with its wash of processed keyboard and vocal effects, gives you no warning as to the funkiness that is soon to follow. Then Jon says “OK, let’s do it”, and his brother Tim chimes in with an uber-cool bass riff in 7/8 time, with some handclaps to help us keep track of the irregular beat, and then there’s a dance-punk sort of a guitar riff laid on top of that, for maximum groove-ability, even though you’ll probably step on your own toes every time that extra beat shows up. The whole thing is just so deliciously lopsided, and unlike a lot of songs in oddball time signatures, this one doesn’t sacrifice anything in terms of catchiness or radio-friendliness to make it work. It’s odd and experimental, yet instantly memorable – you can pick up the gist of the chorus and parrot it back in almost no time (which I’m sure must make live performances a blast). I’m not going to pretend it’s the deepest Switchfoot song out there – it’s mostly about defying gravity and not letting nay-sayers get you down. But just as I observed with the previous track, this one does a bang-up job of making you feel the mood it’s trying to convey. They’re 2 for 2 in that department, and they’ve come up with a stone cold new Switchfoot classic despite bucking a lot of the typical elements of their sound on this one. If “Dirty Second Hands” did that in a vicious and startling way 10 years ago, then this is the song that subverts expectations in the most happy, peppy, everybody clap-hands-and-sing-along way possible.
3. Where the Light Shines Through
It sort of bugs me when the title track of a Switchfoot album isn’t really one of its standouts. I guess that was even true of The Beautiful Letdown, though that was mostly due to the material being strong all-around. Oh! Gravity is their most recent album I can think of that I felt had a really strong title track, though it’s notable that Fading West‘s title track didn’t even end up on the album… anyway, that’s all old news. This track certainly tries to take a different approach to Switchfoot’s usual “bad things turn out to be good things if you just look at them right” philosophy, adding a slight bit of bluesy twang to their expected, quirky-yet-anthemic rock sound. Since so many of Switchfoot’s lyrics are about a person being down and out and yet coming out swinging, refusing to give up the fight, I think the inherent earthiness of the guitar tone fits well enough with that. What’s tough for me here is that I feel like Switchfoot is jumping to the conclusion that they want to prove. In a nutshell, the idea behind this one seems to be that you shouldn’t hide your brokenness because it actually tells a redemptive story. “The wounds are where the light shines through.” It’s a nice enough sentiment, but I always feel a bit awkward when a band whose lead singer is such a philosophy geek, and who is so articulate in prose and in a lot of his solo songwriting, seems to skip over the nuts and bolts of the case he’s trying to build and simply declare that these bad things are good for us because they inherently are. I feel like this isn’t persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already feel that way. It’s a super-encouraging reminder for the rest of us, and perhaps with matters of faith you reach a point where logic can’t prove some of the things where you just have to take a leap and trust God has your best interest in mind. I get that. But it still puts a song like this into that uncomfortable middle zone where it’s not nearly as profound as it sounds like it was intended to be.
4. I Won’t Let You Go
I will say that the theme of the previous song dovetails nicely with this very sensitive ballad, in which Jon is trying to help someone mourn their pain and move past it. It’s one of those ballads that immediatley tips its hand regarding its desire to be a tear-jerker, and on an album like Fading West or Hello Hurricane it probably would have been given the generic CCM radio ballad treatment, but due to the overall ethos of this album, I feel like it, too, tries harder to rethink that approach. That means it’s actually softer and mellower at first than how a typical Switchfoot radio single would start out, with the percussion taking longer to come in and Foreman’s wispy vocals stretching for some almost uncomfortable high notes – the sympathy comes through quite clearly despite the imperfections. When the climax finally hits and it goes into full-on rock ballad mode, it feels like that release of tension has been earned, and it wasn’t just the result of some record exec saying, “OK, you need to go from soft to loud when the chorus hits.” Having said all that, I wouldn’t consider it one of Switchfoot’s all-time greats, but it’s a B-grade song that likely would have been a C-grade song if Switchfoot had written and recorded it at just about any point between 2009 and 2014.
5. If the House Burns Down Tonight
For me, this track was big surprise #2. I get that due to the experimental nature of “Float”, not everyone was gonna be as psyched about it as I was, but this is the rare modern-day Switchfoot track that seems to be universally agreed upon among their fans. I haven’t heard anyone speak ill of it yet. The surprise comes pretty early here, as what seems like it’s going to be a sensitive acoustic ballad quickly morphs into one of the album’s most up-tempo rockers, with an excited edge to Jon’s vocals at some point that elevate it far beyond what could have just been sentimental drivel. San Diego, where the band hails from, is a city that’s unfortunately seen its fair share of wildfires ove rthe years, and I’m sure that a lot of folks there have had the traumatic experience of very suddenly having to evacuate their homes, not knowing if they’ll have anything to come back to other than whatever they could grab on the way out. Jon seems to be writing from that perspective here, and the sheer momentum of the song captures that urgent feeling of needing to get the heck out of Dodge, while the unapologetic power pop melody makes it clear that if he’s got nothing but his loved ones by his side, he’ll still be a happy man. The song definitely hits on those escapist themes of just putting the pedal to the metal and having nothing in front of you but a loing, open highway that I’m a sucker for. It’s gonna make for an awesome road trip soundtrack, I’ll bet. But it’s not just about carelessly leaving behind your stability and your responsibilities, it’s more about making sure you’re not so tied down to things that you forget about people. “You possess your possessions or they possess you,” Foreman says in one of the final choruses, which might be the most genuinely profound moment on the entire record.
6. The Day that I Found God
I’m getting a lot of flashbacks when I hear this one. The breathy synth/vocal effects that help to give this song its unique character remind me of something I was listening to in the late 90s or early 2000s that I can’t quite pinpoint. The overall laid-back pace of the song, and its theme of not finding peace and clarity until you’ve lost everything and given up control (another well Switchfoot goes back to frequently) bring to mind Nothing Is Sound‘s sixth track, “The Blues”. It’s definitely ground that Switchfoot has covered before, but the unique production touches – particularly the way that synthesized effects and a bit of programmed drums and bass butt up against delicate acoustic guitar and a vulnerable lead vocal – help it to stand out from old Switchfoot a bit. I can pick up hints of a deeper struggle in this one – being tempted to lose one’s faith in God after some sort of loss or tragedy – that Switchfoot has never fully tackled before. Jon pretty quickly recognizes those doubtful voices in his head as false, but it would have been interesting to hear him explore that mindset and how he got out of it a little further.
7. Shake This Feeling
Remember how I said that “I Won’t Let You Go” was essentially a C-grade song that got upgraded due to the sound of it doing something atypical for Switchfoot? I feel the opposite here. This is a B-grade or possibly even A-grade song that gets downgraded due to a rather lackluster performance. It’s one of the few tracks on the record where I feel like the same basic nuts and bolts that have gone into a lot of middle-of-the-road Switchfoot songs on their last several albums – mid-tempo beat, merely serviceable guitar riffs, predictable melodies, uninspired drum programming – have cropped up yet again, and only when I pay closer attention to the lyrics do I realize there’s a bit more depth here. At first I think that Jon saying he can’t shake this feeling, he wants to start all over again, is just a cutesy way of saying he’s still in love with his wife after all these years, but then I catch lines like “We got to fight to fall back in love again” and I start to realize, this one’s really about a marriage that has been through the ringer. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that as an old married dude, staying-in-love songs have come to mean more to me than falling-in-love songs. The falling-in-love songs just get written more often because more people can relate, I figure. So a song about sticking with it through the hardships will generally catch my ear, at least if they’re honest about the hardships. That’s where I feel like this song is a bit hit and miss. I get that nagging sense that it’s still trying to be broadly adaptable despite being inspired by something very specific. You pick up hints here and there that the lifecycle of a rock & roll band, being on the road all the time and stuff like that, is what’s put some distance between them. And while I don’t expect him to air out their personal dirty laundry or anything, a little more ownership of exactly where things went wrong, rather than vague metaphors that could apply to almost any broken situation, might have helped this song to pack more of a punch. Musically, it really shouldn’t be so easygoing – it either needs to be delicate or it needs to be a bit darker to reflect the mood that the lyrics seem to be going for. So it comes out just OK in the end.
8. Bull in a China Shop
Take the fun-loving, syncopated, sort of Sugar Ray-ish, feel of Switchfoot’s classic “Gone”, mix it up with some scratchy, grimy guitar riffing, put it all in a blender, and you’ve basically got this song. As with some of the other more fun-loving songs in this record, I’m not giving a huge amount of points for lyrical originality here – we’ve all heard the metaphor “a bull in a china shop” meaning someone who does things with reckless abandon and zero fear, or at least when someone tries to put a positive spin on the phrase as Switchfoot is doing here. Jon’s tired of being held back by fears and arbitrary rules dictating what he can’t and can’t do. So we wants to get in there and bust up all those preconceived notions and see what happens. Don’t overthink it. Just pump your fists in the air when the staccato chorus comes along, and join in the dinette set smashing extravaganza! It may sound like I’m making fun of this song when in fact I do enjoy it a bit. Once again I hear Switchfoot trying to do some different things with their instruments and the overall texture of a song, while keeping it 100% accessible to the audience they’ve cultivated over the years, and I think they pull that off incredibly well.
9. Live It Well
“Life is short, I wanna live it well.” Oh my goodness gosh golly blue yonders, Switchfoot! Are you guys seriously peddling that same old live-your-life stuff with a totally straight face after all these years? Apparently they saw fit to record another middle-of-the-road guitar pop song that would be an obvious fit for Christian radio, that does absolutely nothing new with their sound, and put it alongside a bunch of other tracks that were actually trying to stand out for a change. There’s nothing actively offensive about this track – it makes for vaguely pleasant listening; it just doesn’t aim for anything beyond that. It feels so utterly bland in the context of what we know Switchfoot can do at this point. Everything about it feels like a cheapshot to get the lowest common denominators of their audience on board, right down to the weak ending chant of “One life, one live, on voice, and that’s enough.” Your average greeting card is less generic than this, I think.
10. Looking for America
Just when I was starting to think Switchfoot was running out of steam and the back half of this album was going to be a rehash of stuff they’d already tried before, along comes this collaboration with Christian rapper Lecrae that once again reminds me I was setting the bar too low. Throwing a rapper into a pop/rock song where they suddenly appear out of nowhere just to spit a verse as a desperate grab for a little urban crossover airplay isn’t a new trick by any means, nor is throwing a pop/rock band into a hip-hop song where they’re just there to deliver a chorus hook. But this track manages to sidestep both of those potential pitfalls and come across as a true collaboration between two artists who sound nothing like each other, but who have a belief in common that is worth singing/rapping about. That belief seems to be that there’s a huge gap between what America’s symbols and slogans stand for – the red white and blue, land of the free, home of the brave, that sort of stuff – and the actual liberty and equality shown to all of its citizens. Jon Foreman’s skepticism about those who conflate patriotism with the safe, financially well off, physically walled off, and mostly white evangelical subculture is well-documented in past songs like “American Dream” and especially his excellent solo song “Patron Saint of Rock & Roll”. Lecrae, coming at it from the perspective of an African-American, alludes to injustices carried out in this country towards minorities, immigrants, and even the native Americans who were here before the rest of us. This is likely going to make some of the CCM audience uncomfortable if they’re used to hearing nothing other than “America is great!” (or the insinuation made by a certain politician that it needs to be made great again by marginalizing out all of the non-white folks who are supposedly making it less great – though I might be editorializing a bit there), but it’s important to remember that the message here isn’t “Down with America”, nor is it simply that America needs to find God again simply by being reverent and praying more. It’s that America needs to act on the Godly principles it claims to have, meaning justice for all. America doesn’t exist as a disembodied entity unto itself – you and I are among the ones called to take that action. I might knock off a teeny-tiny amount of points for the obvious resemblance of this song’s beat and guitar riff to Eminem‘s “Lose Yourself”, though just due to Switchfoot being Switchfoot, the overall instrumentation and the tone of the song are quite different. I’m still unsure how I feel about Foreman completely breaking off from the rhythm of the song for a little bit about bidding farewell to his daydreams in the bridge – it sounds like one of those aside moments during one of his solo songs and not something that really fits into the strong, marching momentum of this one. But Lecrae comes back with a really solid verse after that, and I feel like he’s just getting warmed up when he hands the mic back over to Switchfoot for the final chorus, though it’s worth noting that his spoken word bits make a contribution throughout the song, so you’re set up a lot better for him to take center stage than what normally happens in your typical “a wild rapper appears” sort of guest spot.
11. Healer of Souls
“Fuzzy” and “jumpy” are terms I’ve used to describe a lot of Switchfoot’s more fun-loving rock songs ever since I first reviewed Learning to Breathe seemingly a lifetime ago. This one in particular feels like it borrows a bit of its edgy riffing from messier Oh! Gravity-era tracks like “Amateur Lovers”, with a bit of crowd-pleasing call to action a la Hello Hurricane‘s “Bullet Soul”. So, I can’t exactly claim Switchfoot isn’t repeating themselves here, but since it’s very energetic and it gives their guitarists a lot to do, I’m cool with it. The lyrics border on goofy here, trying to make a serious point about how no cause, no nation, no musical genre, nothing can heal our brokenness like the love of God can. It dovetails nicely with the message of “Looking for America”, but it would probably feel a bit more generic if not for that song to help give it context. Honestly I’m just happy to have something this raggedy and up-tempo come so late in the album. One of the big saving graces of Fading West was that it saved two of its best up-tempo tracks for the end, and while Where the Light Shines Through still has one track to go and it’s a mellower one, I feel like “Looking for America” and this track serve a similar function at a point in the album where a lot of attention spans would otherwise start to wane.
12. Hope Is the Anthem
You can’t call a song “Hope Is the Anthem” and not have it be, well, anthemic. Thankfully Switchfoot succeeds on that count, starting from a slow, introspective piano ballad and working their way up to a huge chorus fanfare that once again finds Foreman caring more that his vocals are passionate than that they are pretty. Mood-wise, this song gets everything right. A song that declares “Hope is the anthem of my soul” needs to feel uplifting, and if there’s one thing Switchfoot has a gift for, it’s working their way from downtrodden to soaring high in the sky within the span of the same song. So this works as quite an effective closer, even if two things keep it from being up there with some of my personal favorite Switchfoot album closers like “Living Is Simple” and “Twenty-Four”. First, while I appreciate the fire in Jon’s vocal delivery, he’s trying to cram in too many syllables for the notes available, which obscures the main hook of the song, making it sound more like “Hopizzanthem of my soul”. It’s mildly awkward. Second, I really wish Switchfoot would stop making these weak attempts to “bookend” their albums, as they do very faintly here by echoing the words “Like holy water” as the song fades out in an otherwise beautiful bit of lingering ambiance. (There’s also a voice saying “Hope needs an anthem” at the very beginning of “Holy Water” that I had somehow missed.) They do even less to tie the first and last songs together musically here than they did with “Needle and Haystack Life” and “Red Eyes” on Hello Hurricane, or with “Afterlife” and “Where I Belong” on Vice Verses, and I was already rather meh about those two attempts. Unless you’re gonna commit and make a true concept album where the songs are all musically interlinked in some way (and I just don’t think Switchfoot’s a complex enough band to pull something like that off), I feel like such a blatant attempt to bring an album full-circle at the last minute just introduces an unwanted bit of pretentiousness into a record that otherwise had none.
There’s a special edition of Where the Light Shines Through that includes a few extra tracks, “Light and Heavy” and “Begin Forever”, and I’ve been listening to those but don’t feel any great loss over their being cut from the album proper. The former is a bit of an annoying experiment that rapidly goes nowhere and tries at the last moment to course-correct and become some sort of a quirky alt-pop anthem, while the latter is a pretty enough pop/rock song that doesn’t do much to make anything special of itself. Depending on where you are, you might get your hands on a special version of the album that has a few other tracks not mentioned here. My hunch is that it’s not worth the trouble and extra cost to do so, unless the standard edition isn’t readily available, or you’re some sort of an obsessive completist, in which case you don’t need my opinion anyway.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Holy Water $1.50
Where the Light Shines Through $1
I Won’t Let You Go $1
If the House Burns Down Tonight $2
The Day that I Found God $1
Shake This Feeling $.75
Bull in a China Shop $1.50
Live It Well $0
Looking for America $1.75
Healer of Souls $1.25
Hope Is the Anthem $1.25
Jon Foreman: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitars
Tim Foreman: Bass, backing vocals, acoustic guitar
Chad Butler: Drums
Jerome Fontamillas: Synthesizers, accordion, keyboard, rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Drew Shirley: Lead guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: