As a college kid in Seattle in the early 2000s, I was beginning to come to grips with the power music has. It can define a day, a week, a month, or even a lifetime. It can bring back memories we thought were long lost. I was finding, as many of us have, how a song or an album could find its way into someone's consciousness and never really leave, for better or for worse.
To this point in my short life, I had loved exactly one album (Christian rock band PFR's Great Lengths as a teenager in 1994). Everything else I listened to had come and gone without much fanfare.
2000 and 2001 brought The Juliana Theory's EmotionIs Dead and Bleach's Again, for the First Time, two of my top 10 albums of all time. Two great albums from two great rock bands. However, between those two, in September of 2000, Switchfoot released Learning to Breathe, an album that is, without question, on top of my favorite release list. It also happened to turn 20 years old this year.
The first time through Switchfoot's third album, I knew I had never heard anything like it, though I couldn't put my finger on exactly why at the beginning. Actually, I physically wore out at least three copies of the CD (music came on shiny discs that were easily scratched back then), simply because it was in and out of every car, Discman, or dorm room I was ever around. It, along with the aforementioned Bleach and Juliana Theory records, was the first I recorded to mini-disc and carried around with me when those briefly became a thing around that same time.
Learning To Breathe accompanied me on dozens of 500-mile drives between Seattle and home as I pondered who I was and who I was becoming. I vividly remember realizing before leaving on one of those trips that my copy was too scratched to play without skipping, and making a stop to buy another one on my way out of the city. More than any record I've ever listened to, I know every detail, inside and out.
I was already familiar with Switchfoot, having seen them nearly burn down the stage as teenagers at my church playing their song, ‘Chem-6a' in 1997. And, I was a fan of their second album, New Way To Be Human.
Not long after that album came out, I used the song, “I Turn Everything Over” from that album in a persuasive speech about the power of music. I saw the band play a second time in Seattle in late 1999 or early 2000.
But, what made the band's third album immediately different? After all, it doesn't actually contain my favorite Switchfoot song (that would be their 2005 hit, “Stars”). Well, I suppose it's because there were honesty and vulnerability—and even pain—in these songs that, frankly, I'd never heard from a Christian. Take a look at some of the lyrics from the album's songs.
Maybe redemption has stories to tell?/Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell?
Hello/good morning/how you been?/Yesterday left my head kicked in
I'm learning to breathe/learning to crawl/finding that You and You alone can break my fall
I'm a broken-hearted man/complacent/and tired
Do you remember when/you were way back then/You held the world inside Your hands?/When you told me love was the strongest stuff//Your strength was innocence
Do me a favor/would you tell me which way's up?/cause I don't know where I fit
I wrote this song for you/to show how I'm selling out
In the economy of mercy/I am a poor and begging man/the currency of grace/is where my song begins
The thirstiest grounds can't take the rain/my undecided vices washing on down the drain/and it looks like the sky is caving in again/my heart is cracked/the sky goes black/and tut-tut it looks like rain
Hope has given Himself to the world/is this fiction or divine comedy/where the last of the last finish first?
The honesty weaved throughout the entire album, chorus after chorus and question after question, was a shock to my system. Was it really okay for a Christian to say to God I'm dying to breathe in these abundant skies? After all, I'd never heard any of this in church.
This is the beauty of Switchfoot that we've come to know and love over the last two decades—that honest questions can be asked, with no requirement of easy, tidy answers. It's okay to ask and wonder and search. But, to a college student and to Christian music in the early 2000s, it was revolutionary.
The Plot Thickens
The year 2000 found Switchfoot beginning to discover just how far lead singer Jon Foreman's knack for melody and poetic lyrics could take them. A mere three years later, Switchfoot released “Meant to Live,” a song you heard in every mall in every city in America. The song's album, The Beautiful Letdown, would eventually go double-platinum.
At that point, Switchfoot would become bonafide stars. But, on Learning To Breathe, I could hear the sound beginning to change and the foundation being laid for what was ahead.
The aforementioned lyrics were the band's catchiest lyrics and hooks to date; there were bigger and layered guitars from beginning to end. From the first notes of the band's debut album The Legend of Chin, the bass guitar had always been featured, but Learning to Breathe took it to even another level as Tim Foreman's bass playing carried the melody far more often than is common in rock music. (Yes, Jon and Tim are brothers.)
Multi-instrumentalist Jerome Fontamillas would soon join the touring lineup to help pull this bigger sound off live, and he'd eventually join the band full time before The Beautiful Letdown. Put simply, Learning to Breathe was early 2000's indie rock at its finest, but still uniquely Switchfoot through and through.
Daring to do something new
Album opener “Dare You To Move” is easily the most well-known song from the record. It could be called the song that started Switchfoot's upward trajectory. It's also the only song from the first three albums that the band still regularly plays live. It would be re-recorded and included on The Beautiful Letdown. But, the Learning to Breathe version was featured in the Mandy Moore movie A Walk To Remember, among other early Switchfoot songs. This song would bring Switchfoot's first notable mainstream recognition.
“Dare You to Move” isn't the only highlight of Learning to Breathe. Another is certainly the title track, which contains some of my all-time favorite lyrics: the phrase, 'You and you alone can break my fall' has found its way to many dorm room walls, bulletin boards, and guitar pedals since I first heard it 20 years ago.
“Love Is The Movement” and the idea behind it became the slogan for the non-profit organization To Write Love On Her Arms. And, “You Already Take Me There” spawned a memorable skydiving video. “Poparazzi” is relentlessly catchy and manages to simultaneously poke fun and be serious at the same time, while “The Economy Of Mercy” is a lovely description of God's grace.
When A Walk To Remember came out and we heard Switchfoot songs in a mainstream movie, it was well-earned recognition for a great band. But, no one, and maybe not even the Switchfoot guys themselves, imagined the rocket ship they would be on for the next 10 years.
The aforementioned The Beautiful Letdown became a Billboard top 200 album of the entire decade. Switchfoot played the rock n' roll hall of fame. Their music was all over MTV and VH1. They played to huge crowds everywhere they went (the 20-year celebration of The Beautiful Letdown should be something else). The opening notes of "Meant To Live" are arguably as recognizable as any rock song released between 2000 to 2010, mainstream, Christian, or anywhere in-between. The song and album really were that big.
Switchfoot would quickly follow that up with Nothing Is Sound, a collection of some of the band's best songs to date. This is also around the time they added Drew Shirley as an official member, making them a live powerhouse that can pull off songs and shows that many bands simply can't.
In the years following Learning To Breathe, Switchfoot honed the skill of subtly changing their sound just enough to remain at the forefront of the music scene, but never straying far enough that they were no longer themselves.
After their Oh! Gravity album in 2006, Switchfoot did what many bands strive to accomplish but never do: they severed ties with their major label while starting their own label, built their own studio, and self-released their music, thus retaining control of their releases and their distribution.
However, the band has also been able to secure major publishing deals while retaining that control, assuring that their records always reach far and wide. This successful and rarely executed strategy has enabled the band to forge their own path, on their own time-table, and artistically exactly how they envisioned: for example, the Fading West album and film and Jon Foreman's two sets of solo albums along with his own documentary. It all adds up to Switchfoot still going strong 20 years after the landmark release of Learning to Breathe, still telling redemption stories, and still asking honest questions with every subsequent release.
John Hisel is a worship leader and pastor in Boise, Idaho
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