Album: Native Tongue
In Brief: Eh… it’s another Switchfoot album. A little heavier on the ballads and programming than I would like, but it’s not terrible. Every now and then, the band tries something inventive here that updates their sound just enough to not seem like it’s old hat. But a lot of it is Switchfoot by the numbers, which admittedly is kind of a tricky thing for them to avoid now that they’re 11 albums deep into their career.
Even though I consider Switchfoot to be one of my favorite bands, I’ve had to admit to myself that it’s more due to their longevity and the long list of excellent singles (and the occasional stellar deep cut) they’ve stacked up over the years, rather than due to the strength of their albums. They certainly have a few records that I’d passionately defend – The Beautiful Letdown, by fair their most popular album, is certainly one of them, as are lesser-appreciated entries such as Learning to Breathe, Nothing Is Sound, Oh! Gravity, and Where the Light Shines Through. The last album in that list was their most recent up until this year, and while it barely seemed to register as a blip on the radar in terms of popularity compared to the band’s heyday in the early to mid-2000s, it was an album that really resonated with me, providing some much-needed rock energy and sonic diversity after a glut of albums that seemed rather indecisive about whether Switchfoot was indeed still a rock band. The idea of “rock” as a genre is kind of all over the place these days in general, so it may not be entirely Switchfoot’s fault that a lot of bands are jumping ship on guitar-heavy music and incorporating a lot more keyboards and programming. It’s not like Switchfoot hadn’t been doing that since the introduction of Jerome Fontamillas in the Beautiful Letdown era to augment the original trio of Jon Foreman on vocals and guitars, Tim Foreman on bass, and Chad Butler on drums. Rounding out that combo with second guitarist Drew Shirley for Nothing Is Sound was certainly a solid move, and from that point on, the band’s lineup has remained stable, yet it’s seemed more and more as time goes by that they haven’t quite known what to do with all of their members. Jon and Tim are always at the forefront since they do the lion’s share of the songwriting. Occasionally there will be a more concerted attempt to bring the rhythm section to the forefront as heard here and there on Vice Verses. But the pressure to come up with pop hits rivaling their glory days seems to haunt them with each new album – which is honestly what made Where the Light Shines Through such a relief, because it was able to play around with some of the expected genre conventions while putting the focus back on guitar for a lot of the songs, without compromising the energy and variety of some of their more lighthearted and experimental tendencies. After taking a year off to regroup and let Jon tour his latest solo project and its accompanying documentary, that band is back with their eleventh album, Native Tongue. And probably every trick they’ve tried before as a means of changing up their sound gets echoed at one point or another on this record. But honestly, I’m reaching the point where I’m getting diminishing returns from these guys – I seem to always foolishly hope for more of a radical reinvention than what I end up getting.
There’s also the complaint that I seem to make with every new Switchfoot album concerning the songwriting, which usually aims to cover universal, big-picture philosophical questions with a huge emphasis on life-affirming anthems, but which seems to have a hard time covering it in anything but the most general terms. Jon Foreman is a very smart man, and I adore the more intimate and personal style of songwriting heard on his solo projects, which creeps into Switchfoot’s records from time to time, but honestly his other songwriting outlets seem to deprive his band of some of his better material. Consequently, it’s easy to relate to a lot of Switchfoot songs, but pretty rare to feel like I relate to them for any reason unique to myself. They seem to shoot for the lowest common denominator a lot of the time – and I don’t say that to accuse them of watering down their message or trying to hide the fact that they’re Christians or anything like that. They just tend to write in very, very broad terms. So these days I’m more likely to get into a song for superficial reasons of it being catchy, or because it has an interesting lyrical gimmick that at least puts a fun spin on their upbeat worldview, than because it speaks to my soul on some super deep level like many of Foreman’s solo songs do. Native Tongue doesn’t do a whole lot to change that balance. There are a handful of songs that are great fun to listen to and that I imagine will be a total party in their live shows (one of which I’ve got tickets to see this April). There are some mellower, more free-spirited pop songs, and some ballads. Actually a lot of ballads. That might turn out to be the Achilles heel of a record on which I often feel like I’ve heard these song ideas in several places before, most of them on other Switchfoot albums. (With a few very notable exceptions.)
Native Tongue isn’t actually the longest Switchfoot album – it has 14 tracks, which is more than any of their previous records, but at just over 52 minutes, Vice Verses beats it out by mere seconds. But I tell you, it really starts to feel like it’s their longest toward the end. It’s a top-heavy album, with literally all four of the singles that came out in the lead-up to its January 2019 release in the first four slots. The rest of the record never quite reaches the heights of the better singles, but I’ll admit that it features a few surprising moments that work well outside the confines of what Switchfoot could probably expect radio programmers to be interested in these days. Let it not be said that they didn’t try anything new here. It’s just that they didn’t try enough of it, and the result is a rather misshapen record that doesn’t flow terribly well and doesn’t make a strong case for itself in terms of compelling the listener to go back and experience it again as a complete body of work. Remember how Switchfoot was so darn convinced that Hello Hurricane needed to be heard in order, from front to back, that they played it exactly in that order on their tour? I’m worried that this is gonna turn out to be another one of those situations – what the group seems to thinks fits together in some unified fashion is really more of a hodgepodge, a jukebox of a record, the kind of thing a band puts out to keep individual song ideas that they’re really attached to from getting relegated to obscure B-side status. I’d be perfectly fine with trimming this one down to 12 or even 10 songs – and that’s a bit discouraging, considering that Where the Light Shines Through managed a generous yet tight set of 12 songs, only one of which (“Live It Well”, unfortunately following the most generic template for a hit Switchfoot Christian radio single that gets trotted out a few times again on this album) I would have been OK leaving out. This one just isn’t up to their usual batting average, I’m afraid.
So yeah, I’m not terribly thrilled about this album, even though I think the handful of genuinely good songs are still enough to elevate it to “slightly above average” overall. That puts it in the neighborhood of a Fading West or a Vice Verses – records which are definitely on my lower tier of Switchfoot albums, that several years down the road I probably won’t listen to all that much, and will mostly remember for a few big singles and some fun live show antics that were unique to that particular tour. I still love these guys as hard-working musicians and as all-around delightful human beings, but I’ve kind of given up on expecting them to be great artists.
1. Let It Happen
If you exclude the mushy pop misfire that was “Love Is Worth the Fight” at the beginning of Fading West, pretty much all of Switchfoot’s albums since they first hit it big have led off with a roaring rock anthem. The degree to which they maintain that level of energy throughout their albums tends to very, but the opening track is a pretty reliable constant, so it’s no big surprise when the chiming, melodic opening gives way to a wall of loud guitar chords, that keep slamming down on the listener like waves after each line of lyrics in the verse. The lyrics follow one of Switchfoot’s pretty well-worn templates, establishing right at the beginning that Jon has arrived at a point of feeling empty and hopeless and meaningless, and moving pretty quickly from there to finding a source of hope that fills him up again when he acknowledges he can’t do it on his own. That’s pretty much the theme of “Let It Happen” – God isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it’s very much a “Let go, let God” type of song, just substituting the vague idea of love in there so that those inclined to infer “God is love” can do so while it’s still accessible to everyone else. I have no particular issue with this, though the song does end up falling back on some rather weak cliches as a result of its need to appeal to everyone: “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know you’re my future”. The one thing that strikes me as odd about this song is how the chorus sets Jon up to reach for the rafters with a few high notes, yet he pretty consistently pulls back and drops an octave right where you’d expect him to go high, deferring that payoff for later. It’s almost as if the band ended up recording the song in a key that he wasn’t quite comfortable with, and this is how he made do. It’s not the ideal showcase for him as a vocalist, but he does alright, I guess.
2. Native Tongue
When all is said and done, the lead single is likely the song this record will be most remembered for – the band was wise to name the album after it, even though most of the other tracks don’t seem to follow its lead either musically or thematically. At first, I was a bit thrown by the strong presence of synthesized bass and drums on this one – it’s an unabashedly bouncy, rhythmic song, which takes the focus away from the guitars to the point where I honestly don’t know if I’d even consider it a “rock” song. At first I felt like production gloss was taking over the band’s live energy, as if the band wanted to come up with their very own Imagine Dragons anthem or something, but looking at it a little deeper, I have to give the band credit for trying something different with a unique lyrical idea and coming up with something that is a bit of a nod to fun-loving rhythmic Switchfoot songs of yesteryear while not sounding like a carbon copy of any of them. This gradually became a personal favorite of mine, helped along by the lyrical idea of love being a person’s native tongue, a language we’ve forgotten. I’m sure this is an idea many songwriters have explored, but there’s something interesting about the phrasing, the encouragement of people to re-learn their native tongues, that works on a very literal level in a time when people in America seem politically divided over whether the country’s identity should be more diverse or more homogeneous. Switchfoot doesn’t use this as a direct political statement, but reading between the lines, their use of this metaphor seems to also place value on the literal idea of people speaking their native language and being proud of it – some people would call the language you learn when you are young and use to communicate with the family members and the community you’ve known the longest your “heart language”, so I really love how the possible interpretations of this song seem to dovetail when I think of it that way. It’s also noteworthy that this big, infectious, bass and drum heavy anthem gives way to a nice little coda at the end, with Jon giving us a nice little sentiment to end on: “I want the world to sing in her native tongue/Maybe we could learn to sing along/To find a way to use our lungs for love and not the shadows.”
3. All I Need
While I felt some level of disappointment with all of the singles released from this project, this is the only one that truly hasn’t grown on me. Its rather basic chord progression and straightforward mix of acoustic guitar, piano, and the expected “big pop anthem” chorus, feels about exciting as every tossed-off soundtrack song they’ve ever put out that wasn’t good enough for the album, which is to say not very much. I’ve heard the simplistic “love is all you need” sentiment a million times from a million bands; Switchfoot tries to put a spin on it by using the air we breathe as a metaphor for that love, but it’s pretty obvious where they’re going with it and there’s no point at which these lyrics or this arrangement ever show even a fleeting attempt to surprise the listener in any way. This is the exact middle of the Christian hit radio road – or at least, it was in Switchfoot’s heyday when they were one of the bands shaping that default sound for better or for worse. I can’t bring myself to care about this one in any way, shape or form, nor can I really point out anything egregiously bad about it. It’s straight-up middling. Let’s just move on.
Releasing this quirky, heavily programmed song as the follow-up single to “Native Tongue” certainly led to some off-base expectations for this album. I’m actually glad that the entire album isn’t an over-programmed mess, and that the few songs relying on programming turned out to really grow on me, ultimately hitting the same sweet spot that something like “Gone” or “Selling the News” might have in previous years. Jon has that whole “Just barely skirting the edge of rap without actually rapping sort of approach to his voice” while the rest of the band provides fun syncopation and a deceptively cheery melody. And the chorus does manage to get going with some louder guitars, even if they’re kind of enslaved to the synthesized beat. For a song about having so many influences telling you what to be and how to express yourself, and not knowing how to drown them all out, this mixture actually makes sense. (Though the notion that he’s trying to listen to the radio and can only hear voices in his head seems almost alarmingly naive – honestly who listens to the radio looking for groundbreaking musical inspiration these days?) It’s easy to pick up on the subtext of a band trying to figure out its current identity after all these years, and sort of taking it every which way on a lark, to see what sticks. This is one of the shortest songs on the album, at just under three minutes, and I was sort of disappointed to discover that its abrupt ending didn’t transition slickly into the song following it on the album – no matter whether you hear it in context or on its own as a single, it’s always going to seem like it cuts off right when it’s about to hit its climax.
5. Dig New Streams
I’ll give the band credit here – after they’re done with that big block o’ singles, they follow it up with just about the farthest thing from a potential single that I’ve heard on a Switchfoot record since the Oh! Gravity days. This one feels like a mini-suite that was written a section at a time with little worry about how the individual sections would fit together. It starts as a very quiet, moody, acoustic ballad, with a bit of harp in the background, before taking a hard turn into a messy, rocking refrain reminiscent of something you might have heard on The Legend of Chin. At one point Tim Foreman sings lead for a verse just because he can, and there’s a slightly whimsical horn section as the song stomps along to a very different rhythm than it started with, and for some reason they’re singing about going down to New Orleans, and then Jon Foreman is playing drums, and basically it sounds like the band was having fun rotating roles in the studio and not worrying too much about whether the sum of all these experiments made much sense. There is a central lyrical theme to this song about wanting new life to spring forth from what is old and dead, hence the refrain, “Love let us dig new streams”. It manages a few poignant moments in what I’m guessing is the bridge? Whatever the part is where Jon is welcoming all of the broken and used up and unfairly judged people into the fold, and he sings, “If you’ve been hurt by the church of black and white/Come unto me, find rest, my burden’s light.” The song brims over with the excitement of trying something new, and even if I don’t think all of its pieces fit together convincingly, I definitely enjoy the unpredictability of it. I kind of wish more of the album had followed this one’s lead, at least in terms of its willingness to throw the listener a curveball.
6. Joy Invincible
I like how this one is a softer, guitar-based song that seems a little different in the instrumental department than the band’s usual ballads. It’s got a modest, six-note riff that rings out nicely, and has a stop/start dynamic that gives it a light rhythmic backbone, which is later filled in with percussion, a soft horn section, and nicely layered backing vocals. I suppose this is one of those cases where I don’t mind Switchfoot sounding like a polished studio band, because the creative ingenuity and emotional integrity of the song remains intact. Lyrically, this one appears to be a sequel to “If the House Burns Down Tonight” from Where the Light Shines Through. It may be a world away from the sheer force of that song as it tore down the highway like a bat out of hell, but it seems to follow up on the story of Jon’s house burning down and his family escaping with only a precious few belongings to their name. Here, he wakes up in a hospital room with only a cardboard box left to represent his worldly possessions, and even though it’s a devastating turn of events, he credits his wife for being a solid, unwavering presence, and reflects on the joy that they still have despite the tragedy. Though the song never spells it out, the mood if it seems to communicate how joy is different from happiness. Happiness is an emotion that you generally feel when good things happen to you. Joy is more of a persistent positive state of mind that enables you to endure the bad things. And that emotional gently reverberates throughout this subdued, but beautiful song. The one thing I don’t like about it is Foreman’s enunciation – the word “invincible” in the chorus comes out sounding more like “invissssble”, as if he’s slurring the word “invisible”. This was previously an issue on “Hope is the Anthem”, or as I liked to call it, “Hopizzanthem”. There’s plenty of space here and no reason to be in a hurry, Jon. The syllables all fit. Why the dodgy delivery?
7. Prodigal Soul
It seems like every Christian band, sooner or later, gives us their take on the “prodigal son” story from the Bible. It’s a compelling story. I get why a lot of people relate, either to the younger son who squandered his father’s inheritance and then found himself humbled to still be accepted back into the family, or the older son who stayed behind and resented the special, undeserved treatment his brother was given. The better songs on that topic explore this dynamic in some way. The more mediocre ones just throw the word “prodigal” in there along with some vague notions of having fallen away from God and being sorry and now feeling good to be home again. Switchfoot version unfortunately ends up in the mediocre camp. I seriously can’t think of a noteworthy thing about it other than to say, “Welp, they wrote themselves a prodigal son song. They can check that box now.” This is basically every acoustic guitar-based, hoping for inspirational Christian radio crossover ’cause it’s too light for CHR, deep cut on a Christian rock album that I heard in the early 2000s. I guess Jon hits some nice high notes near the end of the song as this thoroughly predictable ballad struggles toward some semblance of a climax. Really, nothing else is memorable. If there were a college that taught a “Christian Rock 101” course, this would probably be the band’s assignment for the “End of Side A, time to close with a tear-jerking ballad complete with weepy strings” lesson. Yawn.
8. The Hardest Art
After expressing skepticism about a few of the more pop-leaning songs on this album, it’s probably going to sound weird to you that I responded so well to Switchfoot going full-on electropop for this one. I find that I don’t mind this sort of thing so much when a band is dipping its toes more deeply into a new genre rather than just settling on a safe and sterile radio-friendly sound to avoid ruffling any feathers, and there’s enough fancy keyboard and rhythmic stuff going on here that can tell the band didn’t arrive here by default. (Still, I’m glad this wasn’t one of the early singles, given my initial ambivalence toward the programming on “Native Tongue” and “Voices”.) The lyric certainly sounds like the sort of reflective thing you might hear on a Jon Foreman solo album, as he muses about how much trickier it is to express love in real life, when it’s often something you have to choose, versus in the movies when it seems to be this wonderful, mystical thing that just magically happens to people. At one point, they manage to cleverly strip the entire thing back to just Jon an his guitar before the synthetic elements come creeping back in – it’s a fun little glimpse into what must have been a confusing pitch to the band – “Hey, how about we take this unpolished little demo song that I recorded, bring in a female duet vocal, and totally glam it up, M83 style?” I can just imagine the rest of the band all staring blankly at each other for like a full minute and then going, “Well sure, why not, we’ve tried just about everything else on this record.” And I’m not joking about the M83 influence – Kaela Sinclair, who was one of the female vocalists on the band’s Junk tour a few years back, trades the mic back and forth with Jon here, and her breathy voice actually fits a lot better with Jon’s than you might think. There’s just enough “band” here to make me not mind all the programming. It’s a tricky balance to pull off, but they somehow managed to make it work.
9. Wonderful Feeling
I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard Switchfoot do a piano ballad that I considered compelling. There must be at least one in there somewhere, but it’s not coming to mind. This one certainly isn’t it, despite its best attempts to woo me with the sound of a refreshingly analogue upright piano, a chord progression that pretty much screams “I really felt like letting my inner John Lennon come out to play”, and even an attempt at a subdued, Eric Clapton‘-esque guitar solo in the middle eight. The problem? None of this really plays to the strengths of anyone in the band. It’s all performed capably. It’s got that slight bit of whimsy that you’d expect from a really laid-back, sunny pop song. But it’s wasted on a throwaway lyric that doesn’t have much more to say than “I was really bummed and then the sun came out and now I’m happy and isn’t that nice?” I get that after 20+ years and 11 albums, it’s hard to find new songwriting angles… but you guys took a year off for a reason. There should have been way more interesting stuff in the vault by now, right? (I could have maybe accepted this as a Fiction Family song, but Sean Watkins probably would have injected some much-needed melancholy into the lyrics if that had been the case.)
10. Take My Fire
Don’t let the keyboards and the programming in this song’s intro fool you. It’s actually the rowdiest rocker on the album. Normally this would be cause for celebration, just as it was when the band whipped out a surprisingly fun and abrasive guitar riff on “Bull in a China Shop” on their previous album. The problem is that I actually find myself actively irritated by Jon’s vocals on this one. He’s done the whole sprechgesang thing many times before, where he’s caught halfway between singing and rapping, but the way he does it here seems incredibly indecisive, and comes across as a lot of obnoxious and sort-of-off-key shouting. He delivers pretty much the entire song in this manner, while the choppy rhythm rather clunkily follows his lead. The guitars are genuinely fiery here, and overall this comes across as a fun song to get pumped up to a workout or something like that, but there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it. If you’ve heard past Switchfoot songs like “Bullet Soul” or “Dark Horses” that seem to be there solely to give you a good butt-kicking when you’re tempted to throw in the towel, without saying much of anything profound in the process, then you know what you’re getting here.
11. The Strength to Let Go
The slower, more predictable songs in the back half of this record kind of make me feel bad for bagging on “Live It Well”. It may have been the weakest link on Where the Light Shines Through, but I’d take it over a number of these songs. If songs like that one, or “Restless”, or “On Fire”, etc. are the ones that evoke the most passionate response from you on a typical Switchfoot album, then… well, I’m not knocking it, but it’s one of those areas where I’m getting diminishing returns after all these years. I don’t care how much you dress it up with big drums and reverb and soaring backing vocals to fill in the glaring gaps that make the chorus a decidedly dull thing to sing along to. This is still a very basic song with boring chords and a stilted rhythm, about learning to let go, written in the broadest terms possible, that really doesn’t cover any lyrical ground not already covered in “Let It Happen”. Repeating yourself multiple times on the same album isn’t excusable just because you find ways to reference your song titles in multiple places (yeah, I see what you guys did there with “voices” showing up in this song and “native tongue” in the previous one, and it’s really not all that clever).
This song really snuck up on me. It’s a smooth and slightly moody little number that will probably be the opposite of a highlight to most listeners, since it isn’t one of those big helpings of encouragement to the down and out that the band likes to deliver in most of their slower, more emotional songs. It took a while to notice it, but there’s a heartbreaking loss that happens in this song, and it isn’t resolved at the end. Someone bails out on a relationship and the other person is left completely unmoored: “Then you walked away/And I saw fireworks imploding frame by frame/Like watching a movie in slow motion from miles away/Up like a rocket ship ascends, it’s drifting up into space/And I’m running out of oxygen.” Whoa, that’s actually quite a gut-punch, even if it’s delivered in more of a soft, dreamlike state, almost like something I’d expect from a Copeland song. While the ingredients are pretty basic – piano, acoustic guitar, drums, bass – and the rhythm section doesn’t have a whole lot to do here, it feels refreshing to hear something beyond basic pop chords from the lead instruments, especially when they pull of that bittersweet key change between the verse and chorus. Whoever’s playing the gentle electric guitar solo in the bridge, they’re yanking at my heartstrings in ways that the typical Switchfoot ballad doesn’t even remotely approach these days. (See: “All I Need”, which is now rendered completely useless, because this song does a much better job of using the air a person breathes as a metaphor for love.)
13. We’re Gonna Be Alright
Oh, no. Is that a ukulele? Yup. The band went and wrote themselves a Jason Mraz knockoff song. You know what the only thing is that I even remotely appreciate about Jason Mraz’s brand of vapid, cruise-ship-ready, watered-down, feel-good nothingness these days? The occasional moment in which his smarmy, tongue-twisting lyrics actually strike me as clever. Switchfoot isn’t the type for laying the puns on thick in the midst of a self-aggrandizing boast about how you’re gonna make everyone in the room raise their hands and act like they’re happy for the next three minutes, so the lyrics here come off as wall-to-wall cliches, due to this sort of thing once again not being the band’s strength. They literally tell us at one point, “It’s OK to heal”, without any indication of where that healing’s gonna come from, and then of course the bridge follows this up with the lazy triple rhyme of “ceiling”, “healing”, and “feeling”. I tend to hate songs that tell me everything’s gonna be alright for this exact reason – they’re never specific. They never sound all that assured that what they’re proclaiming is actually true. They just needed some upbeat lyrics to accompany a throwaway little twee pop jam that didn’t fit with any of their more serious attempts at songwriting. Coming after a song as vulnerable as “Oxygen”, this is a slap in the face – a half-hearted and completely unearned attempt to tack on a happy ending at the last minute because they apparently weren’t sure where else to go from there. I guess Tim Foreman gets in some good bass licks here? If forced to say something positive about this song, I guess that’s what I’ll go with.
14. You’re the One I Want
Just to really drive home to point that the band had no idea how to conclude this album that was already getting way too long for its own good, the last two minutes of it are mostly just Jon alone at a piano, almost sounding half-asleep, matching every note of his lethargic singing to one from the piano, as if he had just stumbled down there in the middle of the night and hit “record” without bothering to think of how it might sound with the piano playing chords or some sort of melody of its own, anything to serve as a counterpoint to a strictly functional vocal melody. At one point a cello comes in, and I see a spark of light, thinking we might be in for a tasteful little solo, but then the song ends prematurely. This is B-side material at best. It’s just embarrassing for a Switchfoot album to sputter to a stop like this.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Let It Happen $1
Native Tongue $1.75
All I Need $.25
Dig New Streams $1.25
Joy Invincible $1
Prodigal Soul $.25
The Hardest Art $1.50
Wonderful Feeling $.50
Take My Fire $.75
The Strength to Let Go $0
We’re Gonna Be Alright $0
You’re the One I Want –$.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: