Sunday, March 6, 2016
Switchfoot - Fading West
To be fair, Switchfoot always had mainstream potential. Prior to hitting it big on the radio with 2003’s The Beautiful Letdown (thanks to 2004 hits, “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move”), Switchfoot was making quirky indie-pop records with a gospel/Christian rock slant. While most people forget it today, Switchfoot was actually discovered by Charlie Peacock, the same veteran producer and label head that would send the Civil Wars to stardom nearly two decades later. “Dare You to Move” was initially on Switchfoot’s third record, Learning to Breathe, but failed to generate much radio traction, despite a feature in the Mandy Moore-starring film, A Walk to Remember. But as I said, something was in the water in 2004, and the band managed to score a couple hits, nab a few inclusions on Now compilations, and immortalize themselves as torchbearers of the mid-2000s radio rock/adult contemporary scene. In that regard, they played about the same role for the first decade of the new millennium as the Goo Goo Dolls played for the last decade of the old one.
Fast forward 10 years and Switchfoot are still trucking along, even though they haven’t had a single on the Billboard Hot 100 since 2005. In many ways, they’re still a lot like the Goo Goo Dolls in that they’re fully aware that they will never have a hit again, but are still churning out solid albums with great high points nonetheless. Also like the Goo Goo Dolls, Switchfoot have never made an album that’s great all the way through (2005’s Nothing is Sound was the closest), though certain individual tracks from each of their records (“Awakening” from Oh! Gravity, “Needle in Haystack Life” from Hello Hurricane, “Where I Belong” from Vice Verses) are as good as any rock songs that have come along in the past decade. Each of those tunes found the band embracing their penchant for writing big, beating-heart anthems, and with “Where I Belong,” the last song from their last record, I found myself comparing Switchfoot favorably to U2. I don’t think these guys will ever play to a stadium crowd, but if they do, they’ve certainly got songs with the scope to pull it off.
Funnily enough, the band’s latest album – their ninth studio record – actually does use U2 as a template, just not in the way I might have imagined two year ago. The album, entitled Fading West, consists of music that was written to accompany a film of the same name. Described by the band as “part rock documentary, part surf film, and part travelogue,” Fading West was at least partially inspired by U2’s Rattle and Hum, a rockumentary that doubled as that band’s seventh studio record. Just as Rattle and Hum saw U2 exploring new ground in North American – on their tour for 1987’s masterful Joshua Tree – Fading West finds Switchfoot traveling the world in search of killer waves and fresh musical inspiration. Do they succeed? Well…sort of.
Albums that double as rock films are always a risk, first because many fans will simply bypass the film and listen to the record, and second because the songs risk becoming little more than soundtrack fodder. Both of those problems have plagued Rattle and Hum for years, with many music writers still regarding the film as a disastrous move that could have easily taken U2 into toxic overexposure territory and destroyed their momentum in the process. The album itself generally gets a cleaner getaway, with songs like “Angel of Harlem,” “Desire,” “When Love Comes to Town,” and especially “All I Want Is You” perpetually ranking on lists of the band’s best material. Switchfoot does well enough navigating the minefield of the soundtrack album, mostly because they make it remarkably easy for fans to ignore the film. One could easily listen to this record and simply hear it as the next chapter in the band’s story, oblivious to the fact that the music is at all meant to be part of something bigger.
Unfortunately, one could also argue that the existence of the film hampers the effectiveness of the album by not allowing it to stand on its own two feet. Supposedly, the songs on Fading West were born from the liberating situations Switchfoot’s members experienced while traveling the world, observing a plethora of gorgeous locales, and losing themselves in the surf. On paper, this all sounds like a great idea, not only because the band has been built from the beginning on the dual passions of music and surfing (the name “Switchfoot” is a surfing term, after all), but also because transformative world travels often give songwriters the fuel they need to bring new sounds and thematic elements into their wheelhouse.
In some ways, then, Fading West is a great success, simply because it’s the most optimistic, invigorated, and downright happy these guys have sounded in years. After 2011’s dark, grunge-infused Vice Verses and 2009’s yearning, lovelorn Hello Hurricane, it’s good to hear the band sounding like they’re on the top of the world, and Fading West is packed to the gills with big, hopeful anthems. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight” kicks the album off in precisely this vein, with an atmospheric vocal loop and a serenely catchy chorus that makes you feel as you’re either resting in the eye of a hurricane or shooting through the center of a wave. “When We Come Alive” sparks with the same oceanic hugeness, thriving off “woah-oh” gang vocals and a pounding chorus that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 30 Seconds to Mars’ This Is War. Intentionally or not, Switchfoot definitely hit the stadium vibes I wanted from them on this album’s best tracks.
But while the music is almost always pleasing, it rarely has the adventurous spirit that I also hoped this album would have. Listeners will certainly hear bits and pieces of the band’s travels on this album, with traces of world music influence showing up on songs like “The World You Want” and “Ba55,” but for the most part, the band’s influences have stayed disappointingly close to home. Spurred forth by ace production from scene veteran Neil Avron (Yellowcard, Fall Out Boy, New Found Glory, etc.), Fading West is mostly just a straightforward and bombastic pop album. Switchfoot cribs moves from fun. throughout (most notably on “Let it Out,” where the “Some Nights” melody is none-too-subtly reprised), and spend most of the record slinging sweeping anthem (“All or Nothing at All”) after sweeping anthem (“Slipping Away”). It’s all perfectly pleasant, with Avron’s beat-heavy production (accentuating pounding drums, booming bass, and handclap breakdowns at every turn) taking it to a higher place. Still, the lyrics are mostly generic, naval-gazing fare – a fact almost made too obvious by the cliché song titles – and the songs themselves feel a bit light compared to the material that we know frontman Jon Foreman is capable of at this point.
Fading West is most successful in its final minutes, with ringing penultimate track “Saltwater Heart” functioning as the record’s definitive mission statement. “Maybe I could wash clean all my landlocked dreams,” Foreman muses on the verse. It’s a great lyric in a sea of unremarkable ones, and it could have easily functioned as the tagline for the Fading West film. The album’s grand finale, meanwhile, a propulsive bulldozer of a song called “Back to the Beginning Again,” is just as good, radiating layers of acoustic guitars, synths, chimes, and fiercely pounding drums for a closer that recalls both the scope and power of “Grown Ocean” from Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. If the whole record were as explosive as these final two songs, it might have been Switchfoot’s best. As is, Fading West feels like a somewhat minor release from a band that has never lacked for dependability. I respect the guys for wanting to make a big, optimistic pop rock album, and they largely succeed, filling this disc to the brim with cascading waves of sound that will sound perfect come the summertime. With that said though, it’s hard to completely love Switchfoot’s take on Rattle and Hum when we’re all still waiting for their Joshua Tree.