July 8th marked the release of the tenth album by San Diego alt-rock band Switchfoot. This has been a surprise to a lot of people I know—either because they never listened to the group (you would know “Meant to Live” if you heard it) or because Switchfoot has been so far out of the mainstream spotlight for the last ten years, it’s a little shocking to hear that they’re still releasing new music.
A short introduction: Switchfoot is a five piece outfit fronted by singer/songwriter Jon Foreman, which has been making albums since 1996. Their style has incorporated elements of post-grunge, classic rock, pop, etc., shifting with the times but always centering on catchy melodies and emotional lyricism. There’s the occasional philosophical, spiritual, or literary reference thrown in, and the band approaches its themes from a Christian perspective, though they make a point of making music anyone can appreciate. There are great songs on every album in their discography, but for a crash course check out The Beautiful Letdown (their major label debut) and Hello Hurricane (their return to independence, and a deserving Grammy-winner for Best Rock or Rap Gospel Album).
Even for a long-time listener, Where the Light Shines Through is a bit of a shocking release. Energy and vitality course through this record, making it sound less like a tenth album and more like a second or third. This isn’t so evident from the two singles, “Float” and “Live it Well.” The first is a straight-up dance song, featuring a suitably funky bassline by bassist Tim Foreman. It’s light on lyrics and heavy on production, and while it’s a bit adventurous for a band which hasn’t done much dabbling in the genre, it’s ultimately forgettable in spite of the catchy tune and the competent groove. The second, “Live it Well,” is a much more predictable track. It goes the contemporary Christian radio route, featuring plenty of spiritual platitudes and a stadium-sing-along-sized chorus. “Life is short, I want to live it well / and you’re the one I’m living for,” sings Jon Foreman to God. The instrumental is overall bright, with an echoing beat and a wall of keyboards and guitars to elevate the vocals. There’s not much going on that’s interesting, but it’s sold on the trademark earnestness of Foreman’s delivery and the unabashed simplicity of it all. I constantly flip flop on whether or not I think this song is worthwhile.
For much of the rest of the album, though, I don’t have that issue. One standout track is “If the House Burns Down Tonight,” an anti-materialist anthem which charges out of a quiet opening into a thrilling, fast-paced melodic-rock jam which begs to be turned up loud on your car stereo. “You fight for what you love / Don’t matter if it hurts / You find out what it’s worth / and you let the rest burn,” Foreman sings, passionate and believably sentimental in a way that makes you feel vulnerable and empowered all at once. The track successfully juggles a multitude of vocal parts, transitions from electronic and acoustic percussion and guitar, all the while ratcheting up the intensity until the instrumental drops out altogether at the apex of the bridge, as Foreman delivers a frisson-inducing high note. This is undoubtedly one of the more powerful moments on the album.
Other tracks, but not all, share this production finesse and high-quality performance. The first song, “Holy Water,” makes for a grand opening, rocking much harder than a song called “Holy Water” honestly deserves to. The instrumental is busy, layering airy, atmospheric sounds and processed vocal samples over steady guitar picking. The song plays its dynamic cards well, falling into a strong chorus that doesn’t give too much away. “Now I’m praying for rain / I want to make that change / I’ve got your blood in my veins / Like holy water,” Foreman sings. The real hook doesn’t come until the bridge, a stirring chant-like bit, rock and roll with a touch of gospel, belted vocals and a dirty guitar riff alongside them. I could listen to this section for hours at a time, so I’m indebted to YouTube user Matthew Shantz, who made an edit of the song where the bridge comes back for a second time in the end.
Other tracks are less successful. “Bull in a China Shop” is a raucous guitar jam with an offbeat vibe, which is fun and adventurous for the first minute and a half—but after that it should really be over. Instead the bull outstays its welcome, and remaining two and a half minutes introduce nothing new or worth waiting for. The album’s biggest waste in potential, however, is the Lecrae collaboration “Looking for America.” Full credit to Switchfoot for working with a rapper—more new stylistic ground—and for attempting to address social issues. The song deals with the conflict over immigration in the US, rightfully pointing to the lack of compassion in politics, something Christian voices in popular culture have either been largely indifferent or insensitive towards. The song’s simple dismissiveness of these attitudes as not-really-American, however, doesn’t go very far. Instead of a rallying cry for compassion, the song feels like a way of distancing the group from unsavory political rhetoric. While it’s good to know where they stand, it doesn’t feel as useful as the song could potentially be with a little more polish on the lyrics, which are at times too vague and at others extremely on-the-nose. “America, who are you? / Underneath the red blue and white / America who are you? / I wonder who you are tonight,” sings Foreman. The Lecrae verse itself is solid, and not to Monday-morning-quarterback this too much, but I would have preferred a larger presence from the rapper on this track. An arrangement with Lecrae verses and a Switchfoot hook might have given the artists more space to develop their ideas and come out with something more affecting.
Immediately after this track, though, is “Healer of Souls,” another terrifically energetic rock-out song which carries on the love-your-neighbor message of its predecessor. “Ain’t we a nation torn by the clashes? / You can send those huddled masses to me,” sings Foreman, a show of sympathy for the downtrodden which looks much better on Switchfoot than “Looking for America” does. Musically as well, this track is what the band does best. It’s a catchy, upbeat affair driven by a bluesy guitar riff (think “Spirit in the Sky” on steroids), and it stands out as one place where the album truly earns its production extravagances. It features hand claps, feedback and electrical interference as rhythmic elements, phasor-processed vocals (or is it a flanger?), a key change, and who knows what else—and yet remains surprising and exhilarating without feeling over-stuffed. “Ain’t we human, ain’t we all got problems? / Honey, rock and roll ain’t gonna solve them,” sings Foreman, and on a rational level I know he’s right. Honestly, though, this track could have fooled me.
If there’s one great weakness to the project, it’s that it doesn’t allow itself to be too vulnerable. The more sentimental tracks like “I Won’t Let You Go” and “Hope is the Anthem” would be better served by a much lighter production touch, one which could let up on the bombastic arrangements and vocal stacking enough to allow some degree of subtlety to enter into the equation. The first of these two is a beautiful song with just a few too many unnecessary trappings to stand out as truly great. The second is a bit of an awkward attempt at an album closer which is admirable in the way builds up higher than you’d expect, sustaining a level of energy which at first seems unsustainable. The other side of this, though, is that it never allows itself to get quiet enough for that buildup to feel sufficiently meaningful.
The number one takeaway from this record is that 10 albums in, Jon Foreman and Switchfoot still have the melodic chops, the penchant for distinctive songwriting, and the impulse to grow into new sounds which make them a great band, even if these elements don’t always come together in the most satisfying ways. Where the Light Shines Through is an album worth listening to, and maybe even worth having the deluxe edition of, considering one of the bonus tracks, “Light and Heavy.” Easily one of the most interesting songs on the project, this track starts out dark and unsettling, with a thudding drum beat in a sparse mix, over which Foreman ominously alludes to the myths of Icarus and Ariadne. Out of the shadows comes a surging, string-backed bridge where he belts “This is your torch to carry / more than just a corpse to bury down / none of us are ordinary / a beating heart is light and heavy.” One of his greatest strengths as a songwriter has always been this device of extolling the beauty of life while acknowledging just how difficult it can be—and here, even staggering under its nearly-overwhelming weight. That’s something he and his bandmates have never lost touch with, and they show no signs of losing it now.