It may show my age, but I've been a fan of Switchfoot
since the beginning, rocking out since the late 1990s to the generation-pegging “Chem 6A” from their Forefront Records debut The Legend of Chin
, the radio-friendly pop song “New Way to Be Human” from their sophomore project
of the same name, and the explosion of poetic yearnings in Learning to Breathe
Good, positive rock and roll is what initially drew me to Switchfoot, and – starting with Learning to Breathe – what pulled me in deeper was frontman/songwriter Jon Foreman's poignant, honest lyrics and progressively inventive and captivating instrumentals.
Although I've enjoyed the direction the band has taken over the years, there certainly were days when I longed for the upbeat, uptempo rock and roll of their past. I certainly don't hold all Switchfoot albums equal; some certainly were stronger than others.
But the album that stands above them all is Switchfoot's eighth, Vice Verses. The musicality, the story of tension and the unparalleled poetry combine to deliver a dozen solid tracks that stand on their own.
“Tell me why would I wait 'til I die to come alive?” asks the first song, “Afterlife,” an opening declaration to live life now, instead of just hanging on for Heaven. Distorted interplay between electric guitars in the verses gives way to a driving chorus.
Rhythmic bass lines and prolific drum runs drive “The Original,” an energetic, happy song that encourages listeners to “free yourself” by embracing your unique identity: “Don't let nobody try to steal your soul. You're the original.” The sound and uptempo feel is reminiscent of Switchfoot's earlier albums.
“Every fight comes from the fight within,” claims “The War Inside,” a heavy, mid-tempo track about how our own brokenness leads to all the battles in our world. “I am the battle line,” the chorus admits, a realization that our own choices affect the course of the fight. Rhythmic, monotone verses sung over electronica bass distortion and a riff that sounds like a slowed down version of the riff from “The Sound (John M. Perkins Blues).”
Out of the confessional-type song comes what is easily the most emotional, climatic song of the album in “Restless.” The confession of brokenness gives way to a confession of desperation for God. “I am restless looking for You... I run like the ocean to find your shore,” Foreman sings in classic Switchfoot ballad style. The imagery of water drops making their way to the sea paints a beautiful metaphor of the longing for God's presence. “I am the raindrop falling down, always longing for the deeper ground,” is a verse that resonates with people whose hearts have been captured by Jesus.
“Blinding Light” is another song that hearkens back to Switchfoot's earlier days, but with the incredible word pictures of today's band. “Deep down there's a hope inside; you've got wings but you're scared to fly... wake up.” The song, with many echoing instruments and background vocals, talks about the inaction we all struggle with sometimes, and the inability we sometimes have to become the people God already says we are.
Switchfoot takes aim at the “info-tainment” nature of mass media in “Selling the News,” the track which easily is the most experimental on the album. Jon Foreman's classic vocals take over in the chorus and bridge of the song after his rhythmic speaking on the verses. (It's more poetry slam than rapping.) Foreman expresses his disdain for the money-seeking, “lowest common denominator” media industry in the third verse: “Substance, oh substance, where have you been? You've been replaced by the masters of spin... The facts are simply one option to choose... We're still on the air, it must be the truth.”
“I wanna thrive, not just survive,” proclaims “Thrive.” Drum machine beats, ethereal synth strings and light guitar accompanies lines like, “I come alive when I hear you singing, but lately I haven't been hearing a thing, and I get the feeling that I'm in between a machine and a man who only looks like me.” It's a cry to feel alive—a recognition that the singer doesn't feel like himself. Hopefully he declares, “I get so down, but I won't give up.”
The stand-out rock track of the album is “Dark Horses,” a track Foreman and Co. wrote for the homeless youth of their native San Diego. These people—and many more like them—have been counted out by society for many reasons. “We've been down but we've never been out,” the song shouts with multiple layers of Foreman's voice. It's a positive anthem that tells people they can rise above their circumstances, no matter what others say. Full of loud, distorted guitars, head-bobbing rhythms and singable choruses, don't be surprised if you hear “Dark Horses” on TV near the end of the college football season.
“We were so young; we had no idea that life was just happening,” reflects “Souvenirs,” a movie soundtrack-type song full of thick harmonies, haunting “oohs” in the background and anthemic chord progressions. The singer says he wouldn't trade his “souvenirs” for anything, as it gives him (and the listeners) happy memories of earlier times of innocence and a perspective to seek out that innocence.
The meaning behind the rhythmic, uptempo jam “Rise Above It” isn't at all veiled. It talks about overcoming the broken system of earth, “living under the curse.” Foreman sings: “Just because you're runnin' doesn't mean that you're scared. Just because it's law don't mean that it's fair. Never let another tell your soul what to fear.” Regardless of the brokenness around you, he extends an invitation: “Let's rise above it.”
Switchfoot has described Vice Verses as an album that deals with the tensions in life, and the title track absolutely embodies this, as it openly struggles with tough questions, including, “Where is God in the earthquake?” and “Where is God in the genocide?” A simple track with just Foreman's echoing vocals and an acoustic guitar, this intimate song plays like a personal journal entry. “Everything feels rusted; tell me that you're there,” he says, then noting, “I know there's a meaning to it all.”
With stomps, hand claps and echoing whoas in the background, “Where I Belong” concludes the album like a drive into the sunset, proclaiming hope in the world to come. Whereas “Afterlife” dealt with living in eternity now, “Where I Belong” acknowledges that the children of God, Jesus' followers, aren't home yet. “Until I die I'll sing these songs on the shores of Babylon... still looking for a home in a world where I belong.” The song bookends “Afterlife” by reprising the phrases, “I still believe we can live forever. You and I we begin forever now. I still believe in us together. You and I we're here together now, forever now.” From this perspective, though, it lends to an inspiring call to bring Heaven to Earth.
Vice Verses has something for every Switchfoot fan. It has the introspective, pleading ballads. It has the gritty hard rock riffs. It has the song that inevitably will find its way onto ESPN. It has the song that could've found its way onto The Legend of Chin or New Way to Be Human. It experiments some, and the experiments pay off.
But beyond the stylistic elements comes an album that tells a tremendous story of the tension of life. It captures the sometimes schizophrenic, sometimes manic-depressive roller coaster of life we all go through as Christians trying to figure out what this walk of faith means. It deals with action and paralysis, searching and meaning, boldness and insecurity, underdogs and conquerors – all supported by perfect instrumentation and vocals.
Now free of label pressures – both from Christian and secular interests – Switchfoot finally has taken off the training weights of expectation and is creatively sprinting into a new era. Vice Verses, it would seem, is the combination of the best of everything Switchfoot has played, written, learned and become in the past decade and a half. This is career defining material, and easily the best album of 2011.
Christian music is easy to find. The kind of gripping, moving, rocking art Switchfoot produces is difficult to find. Find this album, and you'll find your own story.