Switchfoot – Vice Verses – releases September 27
Switchfoot has a distinctive modern rock sound, a worldwide following, and a strong Christian message that is not afraid to question the stickier issues of faith and real life. Sound like another band you might have heard of?
The parallels between Switchfoot and U2 are unmistakable. For both bands, each new release begs the question: will they stick to the formula, the signature sound, or will they tinker and shake things up. The former approach might be criticized for lack of innovation and growth; the latter sends some longtime fans shivering.
So it was with me when I heard the first distorted guitars of “Zoo Station”, the opening track on U2’s Achtung Baby. Its predecessor, The Joshua Tree (we’ll leave Rattle and Hum alone for this discussion) cemented the group’s very definition of rock and roll, demonstrated how faith and music can intersect in the mainstream, and spoke in profound ways to my 16 year old heart. And then came Achtung Baby. Weird effects and rhythms. . Mysterious lyrics. This was avant-garde U2, and I wasn’t so sure how I felt about it.
That was twenty years ago. Suffice it to say, Achtung Baby has grown on me, and typically ranks among critics’ top two or three U2 albums. As reinventions go, it was a grand success.
Is all that to say Switchfoot reinvents itself on Vice Verses? Yes and no. It’s a departure for the band, and they definitely explore new sonic ground, but it won’t be as startling as U2’s reboot. The point is, around every note and hook, Vice Verses reminds me of Achtung Baby. I don’t know if this was intentional (the U2 album is mentioned in the press kit), and I don’t mean to decry this album as derivative, but it’s there, even from the opening distorted guitar.
Those notes belong to “Afterlife”, a sonic barrage that declares what is a theme of most Switchfoot albums: the tension between the pain and brokenness of the present reality and the longing for a perfect eternity. But this song takes on a subtly different outlook as Jon Foreman growls, “I’m ready now / I’m not waiting for the afterlife.” As Foreman himself has said, “There are glimpses of joy among the wreckage. The ocean of grace is drawing closer with every bend of this river.”
Later, “Rise Above It” continues the find-the-light-in-the-darkness thread with this advice: “It feels so difficult / Guess I’m looking for a miracle… I get so sick of it / It feels so counterfeit / I rise above it.”
Just like we found a U2 we didn’t know existed on Achtung Baby, there is much to discover about Switchfoot here. There’s a funky groove on this album, on tracks like “The Original” and “The War Inside”. (Okay, “The War Inside” sounds like “Numb”, which was from Zooropa and not Achtung Baby, but who’s counting?) I’m listening, and my head starts bobbing, and then I say to myself, “Wait, did he just say, ‘Let the kick drum kick one time, breathe out let your mind unwind’? Nice!”
Switchfoot is generally more overt about their faith than U2, but neither band’s lyrics would ever be mistaken for Casting Crowns’. For the Christian listener, then, it’s a joy to find compelling biblical imagery and praise in the word pictures. They’re here in abundance, particularly on tracks like “Restless” and “Where I Belong”, a stirring epic that echoes the band’s contribution to the second Narnia movie soundtrack, “This is Home”. I absolutely love this song, and it moves me to worship as fervently as any Hillsong anthem does.
A pair of songs is a bit darker. “Thrive” declares, “No, I’m not alright. I know that I’m not right,” and focuses more on the basic desire for something better than in confident hope that it’s out there. And then there’s the title track, a downright depressing song that confesses emptiness before asking some difficult global questions: “Where is God in the earthquake? Where is God in the genocide?” It reads like one of those Psalms that finds David complaining more than praising. In reality, these sentiments are real and honest and probably too often missing from Christian music. Fortunately, they’re not left here in isolation, apart from any of those aforementioned glimpses of joy. In fact, although it’s a clever play on words, “Vice Verses” the song is not particularly representative of the mood of Vice Verses the album.
All told, this is a brilliant album, and Switchfoot is further establishing its place as one of modern rock’s best bands. Jon Foreman’s voice is solid, and he continues to surprise me with his startling vocal range. There are tantalizing images throughout the lyrics: a “blood and nicotine sky”, the “dried up doubt in eyes looking for the well that won’t run dry”, and a scene completely painted in two short lines, “Walking along the high tide line, watching the Pacific from the sidelines.” And then there’s Foreman’s unique way of phrasing theological concepts: “But I’m not sentimental / This skin and bones is a rental / And no one makes it out alive”.
So here’s a case where sticking to formula would have been a misstep. It’s clear from their last two albums that Switchfoot continues to grow and stretch. They’re comfortable in their own studio, comfortable enough to take risks (just give one listen to “Selling the News”), and smart enough that those risks pay off abundantly.
One final observation: with all these parallels to U2, isn’t it curious that the scrawled letter motif that adorns the album and singles looks so much like that of Viva La Vida by Coldplay?