Switchfoot – Interrobang: Are we doomed to disagree‽

Artist: Switchfoot
Album: Interrobang
Year: 2021
Grade: B

In Brief: This might be the first Switchfoot album that I remember more for the lyrics than the music. Not to say that the music is unmemorable, or that they didn’t write good songs in the past… It’s more that Interrobang is an introverted record where Switchfoot often goes small in places where they might otherwise be tempted to go big. The result is a more personal record about navigating conflict and ideological division in our society, that resists the temptation to come up with big, sweeping, feel-good answers to the urgent questions that inspired it.


“I seem to always foolishly hope for more of a radical reinvention than what I end up getting.”

That comment came from me, two and a half year ago, summing up my feelings on Switchfoot‘s eleventh album Native Tongue, which had just come out at the time. It was a long-standing complaint of mine about a band that I’d considered a personal favorite for a while but started to get less and less out of as the years went by, and I wasn’t sure what would solve the problem, but that album (despite its addictive title track and a handful of other highlights) certainly wasn’t it. In some ways, I can’t really blame the band for only slightly reconfiguring what has worked for them ever since they hit it big with The Beautiful Letdown, released in the early 2000s when the band was at the peak of their powers. They’ve amped up their rock sound and made it louder at times; they’ve experimented with electronic effects and oddball time signatures and found ways to keep things musically interesting here and there, but the band’s core identity has mostly been wrapped up in trying to repeat that success and reiterate the very broad message of asking the listener to contemplate what the meaning and purpose of their life is, and how to best use that one shot they get at making a difference. Shoot, even on their 2016 album Where the Light Shines Through, which I mostly gushed about, the one track that really took off at radio was “Live It Well”, an almost by-the-numbers rehashing of that same old theme. Sure, Switchfoot has written songs on other subjects and occasionally even found success with ’em since then, but at the end of the day, they’re still best known as the “This Is You’re Life and you’re Meant to Live it, so I Dare You to Move” band. At some point I had to make peace with the fact that there wasn’t much compelling them to deviate from that objective.

And then, 2020 happened – the year that will live in infamy. America, a nation already fraught with sharp divisions, only saw the divide grow deeper as we fought over how to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, whether our leaders were doing a good job of responding to the pandemic, who we should blame for starting the pandemic and exacerbating the problem, and in some cases whether the pandemic was even a real thing that existed. (It’s amazing how much easier it is for misinformation to proliferate when almost everyone’s stuck at home, like it or not, with the Internet being the only way to get a glimpse of the outside world.) I mentioned in my review of Jon Foreman‘s solo record Departures, which came out earlier this year, that Switchfoot rolled with the punches probably better than a lot of bands did, with Foreman’s solo livestreams eventually turning into full-band walks down memory lane that were better produced and performed than any of us had the right to expect in a year that wasn’t exactly profitable for most touring musicians. Somehow Foreman found the time to put together those really well thought-out gigs with his bandmates, do a covers EP with the band, write and record a solo record, and get the band back into the studio to make an altogether unusual entry in the Switchfoot catalogue.

Interrobang, the band’s twelfth full-length album, is different in almost every measurable way from what came before. Which is not to say it’s so weird and out there that you can’t tell it’s Switchfoot. It’s not like everybody plays completely different instruments, or Foreman is unrecognizable as their lead singer, or this couldn’t still be comfortably described as poppy alternative rock music, or anything like that. But the band’s tendency to hit you over the head with these really obvious, grandiose, feel-good choruses in most of their upbeat rockers, while pitching a few mid-tempo anthems straight down center field for Christian radio and rounding it out with the unusual unplugged and heavily sentimental ballad, is massively downplayed here. There’s actually a lot of slower material here, and the band even emphasized some of that material in their choice of early singles, and I was honestly taken aback by how almost none of it sounds like what I’d expect from Switchfoot in mellow mode. Foreman on some of his solo records when he’s in a more melancholy and introspective mood, maybe – but this is certainly unusual territory for the full band. There are a few rockers here, and in some cases the choruses and riffs manage to be pretty catchy, but for the most part I feel like getting a fun tune stuck in people’s heads was a secondary concern when making this record. Switchfoot seems to really want the listener to wrestle with this thing, to wonder what the heck they’re doing and why they chose to do it now, to really pay attention to what they’re singing about before they start to bob their heads and go, “Yeah, this one’s got a pretty cool beat and I can rock out to it.” It’s the same band, just with their priorities a bit topsy-turvy.

Knowing a little bit about the stated intentions behind this album certainly helps to make sense of the sudden tonal shift. Upon realizing that they were writing a lot of songs about conflict and about ideological differences that can’t be reconciled with a few simple, well-meaning platitudes, they decided to push themselves out of their usual comfort zone by hiring producer Tony Berg, who they hadn’t worked with previously, and who as far as I can tell, was pretty good at spotting the usual tropes they leaned a bit too heavily on and encouraging them to rethink them a bit. The band members are all Christians, and Berg is an atheist, and on a superficial level you’d think that would lead to some pushback from a band who, while they generally avoid open proselytizing in their lyrics, still tends to reference their spirituality in fairly obvious ways in a lot of their songwriting. But I don’t think the solution was just to stop writing about their beliefs, or to disguise them in ways that wouldn’t show up on a non-religious listener’s radar. Rather, I think the subject matter shifted to become more about the questions we’re all asking and the conflict that comes from answering them differently, and how to still find compassion and understanding for folks who disagree and find meaningful ways to still meet in the middle, still have productive dialogue, still value the person over the ideology. That is admittedly a ridiculously tall order, especially in a tumultuous time where these differences of opinion are often a literal matter of life and death. And that’s what intrigues me most about this weirdly low-key album where the band chooses not to lead with its dominant foot. I’m a Christian who finds himself at odds with a lot of other Christians, and who often finds more solidarity with atheists, agnostics, or people of other faiths who know enough about Christianity to call out the inconsistencies between the stated beliefs and behavior of a lot of Christians. I’m sure a lot of Switchfoot fans find themselves on either side of this ideological divide – the more progressive ones vs. the conservative evangelical ones. The band has largely stayed out of the debate and tried their best to serve as common ground that both sides can enjoy, but it’s become clearer in a few of Foreman’s lyrics over the years (“Patron Saint of Rock & Roll”, “Looking for America”, “Jesus, I Have My Doubts”) that the simplistic fundamentalist approach of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” isn’t really his style. So it’s become less a question of “Can we agree?” and more a question of “Can we still get something good out of talking to each other?” This album challenges me on that topic at a time when I’ve largely thrown up my hands and given up on a lot of those relationships with people I’ve come to regard as too stubbornly dogmatic for their own good. And that’s why, even if most of its songs aren’t destined to end up on a list of super-addictive favorites that I’ll still be playing over and over years from now, Interrobang continues to intrigue me and invite me to listen closely and make more sense of it now. It’s not the Switchfoot album any of us would have expected… but perhaps it’s the one we need‽

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Beloved
The lead-off track is a curious choice for a number of reasons. First and most obvious, it’s a slow build rather than an immediate jump into the action, and honestly the last time I can remember the first track on a Switchfoot album surprising me in that way was the original “I Dare You to Move” on Learning to Breathe. Second, it’s the only track on the album that Tony Berg actually co-wrote with the Foreman brothers, who otherwise handled all the songwriting on their own. Third, the title – which is a word that it’s not unusual to see in a lot of Christian rock lyrics – doesn’t actually occur anywhere within the song. Fourth, the lyrics about realizing how much you need someone and wanting the truth to set you free, which I might take for granted as the usual clichés on a Switchfoot album released at any other time – seem to take on a different meaning here. There are definitely layers to this one, despite the straightforward musical approach – you’ll still recognize Switchfoot as sounding like their usual selves here, but the restraint shown with the slow, introspective opening, and the longer wait until the chorus to bring out the big drum and guitar sounds, makes it easier to recognize that this isn’t just a throwaway retread of past themes. Jon Foreman’s lyrics in the second verse really hit the nail on the head in terms of summing up what 2020 was like for a lot of us: “I’m staring and despairing on the screen/Turning everything that’s real into a meme/But the feeds that I read don’t feed me what I need.” The need that he recognizes as the months drag on, eventually turning into a full year during which he realizes his doubts and fears haven’t gone away, is for genuine human contact and meaningful relationships, which all of the bickering on the Internet has laid waste to in the meantime. This is a very much a “horizontal” song rather than a “vertical” one, in that it’s trying to address human relationships moreso than how humans relate to God. The phrase “I need you like you need me” makes that clear in the chorus, and it’s that pronounced absence that has made it clear how deeply Foreman feels that love, even for someone he’s grown distant from and maybe even a bit frustrated with due to their inability to see eye to eye.
Grade: B

2. Lost ‘Cause
This is one of the album’s more up-tempo tunes, though I wouldn’t exactly characterize it as a rocker. It’s got a strong lead guitar melody – I like the tone and texture of it, and how it leaves enough room in the mix for Tim Foreman‘s steady bass line to come through loud and clear, but it’s not as “riffy” as the usual Switchfoot songs that get early placement on their albums. Actually, this sounds like the sort of thing that would show up as a deep cut under normal circumstances, somewhere around track 9 or 10, to offer a little variety between ballads, but it probably wouldn’t get singled out by as many people. I’m OK with that, because it feels like the track order is prioritizing the narrative rather than just putting whatever is catchiest first. If you can forgive the rather weak pun in the title (the apostrophe turns the notion of a “lost cause”, meaning a goal no longer worth fighting for, into “lost because“, basically an explanation of the reasons why we’re lost), this one turns out to have some pretty good insights into what went wrong between two people who are now treating each other as enemies. Jon is an incurably optimistic guy who wants to see the best in people, so he knows the person isn’t his actual enemy, but still he recognizes that they’ve treated each other that way, and it’s clear from the words they said to him that some of their criticisms cut pretty deep: “You said it’s scary with the lights on/That my love songs are fight songs/But my punches never landed.” His willingness to keep fighting for this doomed friendship – the kind of relationship that a lot of us probably gave up on completely during all of the controversies that 2020 gave us to argue over – is admirable, but I also appreciate how he’s letting the seems show through here. He comes across as one of the nicest guys in rock & roll, but he’s not an infallible saint. He presumably wouldn’t write songs like this if the temptation to give up and cut that person out of his life completely wasn’t palpable.
Grade: B+

3. Fluorescent
Hints of the fuzzy, bouncy Switchfoot we know and love start to show through on the album’s second single, but it happens in fits and starts. This song feels like a mash-up between three very different styles of production. First off, there’s the muted acoustic guitar, staccato strings, and flattened vocal melody of the verse, which almost has the flavor of an unplugged live interpretation of a song that originally rocked out more. When the verse gives way to the chorus, that’s when the punchy guitars finally come out and you’re like, “Aha, now Switchfoot is back!”, but then it takes a weird turn into a bridge where the vocals are fuzzy and distant and there’s a bit of ambient electronic interference. It’s interesting how this one turns up the quirky factor without being as hyperactive as Switchfoot usually would when they’re being deliberately weird. It fits in well with the late night, contemplative vibe that the band has established so far on this record. Foreman seems to have been inspired to write this one after one too many late nights of not being able to put his phone down. He describes it as a fluorescent light coming through a window that he’s helplessly drawn to like a moth or some other bug fluttering around at night, banging into the glass repeatedly and not being able to get to the actual light source. His obsession with the light plays out sort of like an obsessive crush with a woman who can never truly be his (which may be related to his solo song “Ghost Machine”, which explored an internet addiction). Eventually the battery’s gonna die and he’s going to collapse from all of the eyestrain and mental exhaustion, but until then it’s hours upon hours of doomscrolling, hoping to catch a glimmer of good news in the midst of all the terrible stories clogging up his feed, further fueling his aggressive insomnia.
Grade: B+

4. If I Were You
Here’s where the Switchfoot you remember comes back full force – scratchy guitars, more energetic delivery, Jon Foreman sounding like an overly excited Muppet, that sort of thing. I rather like that they made us wait for the payoff here, with the previous three songs laying the emotional groundwork and then this song acting as a frustrated sampling of some of the dumb things we spent the last year arguing over: “2020 enemies/What a dismal odyssey/Held by only apathy/Is there any remedy?/’Cause we bicker over Listerine/With Twitter as our liturgy/What a crummy legacy/2020 enemies.” The burning question behind this song is whether our deeply entrenched points of view are something that can be changed with enough dedication to logic and common sense, or if our circumstances and our upbringings inevitably led us to those beliefs and it’s too late to find any middle ground between these opposing camps. Switchfoot has never been a particularly angry band – even when they’re noisy, they’re usually just shouting through the bullhorn in an attempt to get people to love each other a little better and live more meaningful lives. I think that’s ultimately the end goal here, too; they just found a way to express it with a tricky balance between humorous wordplay and genuine pathos. This is easily my favorite of the singles from this album, and my favorite track overall, but it’s intriguing that they made us wait for it, putting out three rather unorthodox singles first.
Grade: A

5. The Bones of Us
And now for a complete 180 from the sound of the previous track! This song is the perfect example of my observation that the ballads on this record tried a little harder to be distinctive, rather than just being down-tempo pop/rock songs that aren’t fast enough to be catchy. The arrangement on this track – the murky, distant guitar and bass, the muted thumping and clunking of the percussion, the delicate piano, and a haunting melodic refrain from a hammered dulcimer making it feel like Sufjan Stevens had found a way to communicate with the ghost of Rich Mullins – is so sparse that I almost find it comical they released this as a single. Honestly, though, I’m glad they did, since hearing this one in isolation happened at the perfect time for me, during an early morning walk while I was on vacation with my family this summer. I was happy to be there, but exhausted from the jetlag, but none of us had been able to sleep past sunrise, and we all needed a bit of space from each other at that point, so I went out for a neighborhood walk and did my usual “new music Friday” listening, happy to finally be there after having postponed the trip in early 2020, but also feeling a weariness in my bones from the last year and a half of pandemic-related woes. The conflict Foreman describes in this song hits literally close to home, possibly being a marital dispute that ends in his wife needing a little space. While home alone, he digs up an old box of photographs, remembers a more innocent time when loving each other was easy, and sings with a sense of weary heartache in his voice as he tries to remember what the heck they’re even fighting for and whether it’s worth the toll it’s taken on their marriage. The time alone gives him a chance to adjust his perspective and remember that he’s not supposed to be fighting for an idea or moral stance, but rather for the benefit of the person he loves: “I’m fighting for us, but most of all, for you.” It’s a subdued, but sweet apology that turns out to be one of the most arresting slow songs in the Switchfoot canon.
Grade: A

6. Splinter
This one has a similar pace and intensity to “If I Were You”, though it’s melody is more of an oblique and tense one than an outright catchy one. Switchfoot seems to be straying from the “four chords of pop” a bit more often on this record – not that they ever limited themselves to that, but it’s telling that there isn’t really a track on this album where it feels like they made an obvious concession to the cheery, anthemic, major chord progression-driven sort of stuff that the CCM audience seems to still expect from them all these years later. The conflict at hand in this particular song is more of a war with self than a fight with someone else – Foreman seems to be venting frustration with doubts and fears of inadequacy that keep him up at night, trying in vain to tell himself that “It’s only illusion”, but you can tell from the tense, driving performance that it’s genuinely haunting him. He compares the feeling to having a splinter in his head – it’s not a major source of pain, but definitely an ever-present annoyance, just one that would take surgical precision to locate and remove. Again, I love how Berg’s production allows the song to drift off in an odd direction that it might not have in someone else’s hands – the bridge section briefly melts into a calming acoustic interlude that deliberately contrasts with the growing intensity of the rest of the song, only to then snap back to the chorus, with Chad Butler‘s drums getting more intense the last time through as the song builds to its climax. Like “Lost ‘Cause”, this one isn’t a rocker through and through, though I bet the final payoff of this song would be a thrill to experience live.
Grade: B+

7. I Need You (To Be Wrong)
The album’s lead single is easily the weirdest first impression of a Switchfoot album that we’ve gotten since the Oh! Gravity days. It’s not quite as downtempo as “The Bones of You” – actually, it has a sort of subtle groove and even a hint of whimsy to it. But the expected instrumentation has been almost completely replaced with a meeker version of itself – muted guitar chords that plunk along rather than resonating, glitchy drum programming, sampled electronic bleeps and scratches in the background, and a flourish of strings or background harmonies here and there just to give it that “Beach Boys in their experimental phase” sort of feel. I’m honestly still getting my bearings with this one, which I guess means it served as an effective warning shot that this album wasn’t gonna be business as usual for Switchfoot. Actually, the notion that someone is “just business” comes up in the lyrics a whole bunch, as it seems to describe an encounter between Foreman and a person he finds distasteful, and he’s trying his best not to take the discomfort personally, because he knows they’re just doing their job. But it clearly bothers him that they can both be going about their business, happily avoiding each other to the fullest extent possible, without really understanding what makes the other person tick. The song plays out very much like the opposite of his usual instincts as a songwriter, as he resists the temptation to drop an obvious platitude or moral at the end of these weird observations, simply concluding that he needs the other person to be wrong so that he won’t have to feel challenged and discomforted any more, and surmising that the other person probably feels the same way. There’s no big epiphany here, just a willingness to live in the awkwardness for a moment and try to figure out why it troubles him so much. I find it fascinating that this is one of a few songs on Interrobang that date back to many years ago, with the lyric remaining unfinished and thus the song not making the cut during the recording process for several of their previous albums.
Grade: B-

8. The Hard Way
On a normal Switchfoot album, I’d consider all the bouncing back and forth between the more up-tempo tunes and the slow, sparse, experimental fare to be a flaw in the pacing. But this album does a neat trick by throwing expectations out the window right at the beginning, making the jumping back and forth between opposite extremes feel like part of its DNA – it’s a feature, not a bug. Arguably, you could liken this track to some of Switchfoot’s past work more easily, in terms of both lyrics and instrumentation. The upbeat and somewhat deliberately messy approach reminds me a little bit of Oh! Gravity, when the band was rebelling a little bit against the streamlined, stadium-friendly version of alt-rock that they’d cultivated on the past couple records, while the ability to look at what went wrong in a relationship and admit “Maybe it’s me with the problems” fits in with the confessional nature of a lot of Foreman’s solo material. Here, he’s admitting that the cardinal sin he committed in a relationship was trying to find a quick fix to someone’s problems, hoping to short circuit the process so that he wouldn’t really have to deal with their pain. (I love how he even references the Coldplay song “Fix You” at one point – I think a lot of us can relate to the earnestness and the strong desire to make someone feel better expressed in that song, but I think truly loving a person means being there for them throughout the painful process without taking any shortcuts.) It’s a classic pitfall that a lot of men fall into in marriage, though the song’s a bit broader than that and could potentially be about any kind of friendship that has fallen on hard times due to poor communication and a lack of quality time. Foreman’s eagerness to find the solution has, counterintuitively, made the problem worse, and he comes away from the uncomfortable experience with the resolve that if he had it to do all over again, he’d talk less and do less and listen more. Unfortunately it may be too little, too late – the band is interrupted at the very last line of the song by the sound of breaking glass, a possible indication that the damage is irreparable.
Grade: B

9. Wolves
This is the gloomiest track on the album – which is no small feat! It’s also the one that dates back the farthest, with Foreman writing most of the lyrics and even recording a scratch vocal in a Berlin hotel room back in the Nothing Is Sound days, and that vocal is what ultimately ended up being used here. It’s a restrained, sleepy sort of vocal, deliberately blurred and stacked on top of itself in a few places to give it the feel of a faint memory or a vision occurring in a dream. In terms of instrumentation, the strings are quite prominent here, almost giving it the feel of being part of the soundtrack to an art house flick set in the Cold War. Against the backdrop of grey, rainy weather in a European city that’s seen its fair share of war and division, Foreman contemplates how the greedy, predatory nature of humanity seems to rear its ugly head again and again throughout history. His buoyant, idealistic optimism deliberately contrasts with his despair at the real-world patterns he’s observed, and asks himself if it’s possible for humans to be bold and noble enough to actually put their faith in something more than just sheer brute force and lust for power. “Hopе is a war that is yet to begin” is the big philosophical take-away here, because old Switchfoot songs pretty much always had to have those. Still, despite ending the song with a brief hint of optimism, I can’t imagine any world in which this would have fit on Nothing Is Sound, or any of the albums Switchfoot put out between then and now. His solo EP Winter probably would have been the best candidate.
Grade: B-

10. Backwards in Time
We continue in 3/4 time, but with a much more brisk and beautiful melody, on this nostalgic ballad that pines for an earliest point in time before a relationship crossed its point of no return where the damage could no longer be undone. I don’t mind the bittersweet, sentimental mood at all – it has shades of classic Switchfoot ballads like “Only Hope” and “Twenty-Four”, but it sets itself apart due to the mood being less of a spiritual/devotional one and more of an apologetic one. The guitar parts are gentle but the notes are allowed to resonate, standing in contrast with the muted or murky feel that they have on many of the other slower songs, and aside from some of the vocal overdubbing and the little production tricks (like the backmasking at one point that may be a bit too on the nose, given the title, but that still works effectively), I could imagine this one working well as an unplugged performance, just the strum of an acoustic guitar, some simple percussion, and the guys harmonizing nicely with one another on the swaying chorus. Tim Foreman actually makes a rare appearance on lead vocals for the second verse of this song, with his brother on backup, the two coming back together for the chorus, and it’s one of the most noticeable and effective uses of Tim as a vocalist in the band’s history. He gets the occasional bit part where he’s in front of the mic, but the only other time I can remember hearing him sing lead was on the Fading West B-side “What It Costs”. The whole notion behind this song may be a tad obvious, as plenty of songs about regretting the past and wanting to go back and do things over have been written before. But this seems unique for Switchfoot, and in the greater context of the album, it’s especially effective because you know at this point that the other person has abandoned the relationship and there is truly no going back. (“The Hard Way” already made that point clear, even calling forward to this song in order to indicate that “there’s no way to go back in time”.)
Grade: A-

11. Electricity
The closing track is a bit of a misfire, but I think it has its heart in the right place. I was trying to figure out why it was the track on the album that I had felt the least compelled to pay attention to, because it wasn’t for the normal reasons I tend to overlook deep cuts on Switchfoot albums. Sure, it’s mid-tempo and it might fall victim to the whole “not sure whether it wants to be a rocker or a ballad” problem that I mentioned being an issue for some of their lesser songs in the past, but on an album where seemingly anything goes in terms of the sound and pacing of each individual track, that’s less of an issue. I think it’s more than a well-written song which makes some interesting points about our dependence on electricity, what we do when that electricity fails us, and expresses a romantic desire for him and his wife to make the best of being stuck at home during a power outage by trying to “make our own electricity”. The problem is that the music doesn’t really take advantage of the available electricity. Right from the beginning, it’s going for a slow, syncopated, semi-soulful approach in which the guitars are fully plugged in, but the performance style is more relaxed. It feels like a missed opportunity when there’s an instrumental break in the bridge and we don’t get to hear one of those guitars come to life with a passionate solo. I know Drew Shirley‘s probably got one in him somewhere, but this isn’t really a setting where he gets to show off. And for most of this record, I’ve been fine with that because it wouldn’t have fit the lyrics as well. But here? When a couple is finally at peace with each other, and resolved to both put their phones down and turn the discordant world around them off for a few hours and give each other their undivided attention? Man, that electricity needs to be crackling right now! I think that could effectively turn a rather ho-hum closer into a real stunner, but I’m guessing the band decided it just didn’t fit the record’s overall aesthetic, so oh well.
Grade: C+

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Beloved $1
Lost ‘Cause $1.25
Fluorescent $1.25
If I Were You $1.75
The Bones of Us $1.75
Splinter $1.25
I Need You (To Be Wrong) $.75
The Hard Way $1
Wolves $.75
Backwards in Time $1.50
Electricity $.50
TOTAL: $

BAND MEMBERS:
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:

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s