Switchfoot’s 2019 European tour

After saying goodbye to Switchfoot in 2017 I really wasn’t sure what the future held; I knew they were about to take a touring break (which became the hiatus… and which turned out to be the shortest hiatus on record), and that I was beginning to think about my own future plans, including perhaps starting a family. I wasn’t counting on seeing them again; they may not have come back from their break, at least in the same way, and if they had, I may not have had the freedom to so easily go and see them if I had a child.

However, less than a year on, a new album was already on the way! And earlier this year we found out both a baby and some form of European tour were too!

When the details emerged it sounded pretty much perfect for our circumstances; they would be over here primarily to tour with Bon Jovi, so would only be playing a few headline shows. I had said after 2017, as amazing as it was, that I would not want to try racing round after them to go to all their shows and not get down-time to explore the places we visited, but would prefer to do something more like we did in 2015, seeing as many shows as we could without overdoing it, and getting time to enjoy sightseeing and spending time with each other and friends. Add in pregnancy and I doubly did not want to be doing shows night after night. Three shows in a week sounded feasible. Ordinarily I may have gone to see one of the Bon Jovi shows in addition, but I was prioritising their own shows. I would pay so much to see Switchfoot, but I was less keen if it were just to be a short opening set for a band I am not much a fan of, knowing the ticket fare would not really be going to them, that I would be in the middle of a massive crowd, not get the usual small-venue interaction, and no chance to meet them, so it wasn’t my top priority), and the dates corresponded with the end of my second trimester, about the latest that I would consider going anywhere significant and about the point at which a last child-free holiday would be really welcome.

I bought tickets!

This time round, the whole experience felt so different. I did not feel the same build up of nervous excitement – my mind was on the baby. No pre-tour anxiety dreams about missed trains or not being able to find the venue. No bag-of-coffee-beans feelings. No butterflies. No hyperventilating. Just practical concerns about where would be safest for me to stand in the venues, and how often I’d be able to find toilets. So when we finally set off for London I was feeling pretty chilled, all things considered.

London, July 8th

The train was delayed. A signal failure had us trundling in on the slow line. Finally a tiny bit of the pre-concert anxiety began to rear up, but I reminded myself just how long it was till the VIP event started, and that we had easily enough time to get there, get lunch and get to the venue.

And it was true, we did! After a bit of stress trying to find our accommodation from what turned out to be an unhelpfully incomplete address we managed to check in, then got ourselves amazing vegan pizza and had some time to relax whilst we waited for the time to head out. Everything we needed was a really short walk, which made things much more relaxed. And I had brought with me what turned out to be a very useful tool – a walking stick with a fold out seat, which I could pull out whenever I needed to take the weight off my feet.

Eventually it was time to head to the VIP event and meet the guys – but first, an important task – mission Take-Icecream-To-Switchfoot was finally on, a long-held ambition and a difficult one to achieve!! I made a short detour via a good icecream shop, armed with a rather inadequate coolbag, and purchased some salted caramel and chocolate-hazelnut icecreams, plus some ice to try keep it cold, packed it into the cool bag, and got myself to the venue.

So many Switchfam were there and waiting!! It was great seeing them, many friends I had only previously met online, others I had met at previous shows.

Amazingly, everything ran to schedule! Erick greeted us exuberantly and had us come in and get our VIP passes, and then we waited in the foyer to be called through when the band were ready. They were just through there in the same space, separated from us only by a little crowd barrier, and we could just see them if we stood up by it! Tim spotted us and waved!

After a short wait (during which time they permitted us women a bathroom break, escorted up through the venue like it was a military operation!) they allowed us in and I was straight up to the middle of the crowd barrier at the front – carefully keeping myself facing them square on, and then hiding my belly behind the barrier so they didn’t notice my shape immediately! They greeted us and then Jon suggested they play Wonderful Feeling, since he had a wonderful feeling about the night. Yes! One of my favourites! It did sound gorgeous; however, they were testing the lighting at the same time and kept shining bright spotlights and strobes right in our faces, so badly I couldn’t look up at all. After the song Jon asked for ‘questions, comments, concerns?’ and I joked I was concerned about those lights! They laughed and said it was our turn to be in the spotlight! Thankfully the lighting got a bit more bearable after that. They played Awakening (awesome!!), We’re Gonna Be Alright (another favourite that I’d been desperate to hear live, they really should have it in their sets so everyone could clap along and I said so! They played it for a Mexican fan, seeing them for the first time and very emotional at finally having this chance, it was beautiful!), and Dark Horses.

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After that it was time for photos, so we headed out to line up. I took with me the icecream bag, a letter, and a poster that had on it two arrows, one pointing up saying ‘your biggest fan’ and one down saying ‘your smallest fan’, which I held in front of me so the down arrow pointed to my bump. As I got closer to the front, Drew, who was nearest the queue, looked my way to see who was next in line. I was holding the poster already and he saw it, and this funny sequence of expressions passed over his face – first recognising me, then trying to read the poster, then confusion, then looking hard at the poster, then at me, then at the poster, then at my belly… then back at me and the poster and this priceless, grinning ‘WOW!’ reaction! That was brilliant! Then it was actually my turn, so I got to repeat that with the others. I was greeted with more excitement, congratulations and ‘well something’s changed!’ 😀

I gave them the icecream and Chad and Tim opened it 😀 I so hope it didn’t melt!!! Then I got a moment more with Jon and Romey whilst the others welcomed the next fans in, and Romey asked when the baby was due before I had to go. Fun!

I had time for a quick rest back at the hotel before heading out with M and friends for a burger from Camden Market before getting in line for the show. On my way back to the venue I suddenly found myself right behind Drew, also returning from the market! He was directly in front of me, but since I saw he was with family I hung back and just let him be rather than saying hi.

The show was ok for me; they were crazy good, but it was a bit intense being so pregnant! I couldn’t get to the good spot on the balcony I’d wanted as that was cordoned off for ‘real’ VIPs, so I ended up front row again! Although M was there, he took a spot further back to be with his friends, but one of my friends looked after me and helped me get to the bathroom between acts, and I could lean on the crowd barrier. I felt pretty good and was able to rock out so long as I didn’t go too crazy, but I had half a mind on the baby the whole way through so was a bit distracted from the show. Nevertheless it was awesome and very emotional 🙂

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They stuck to the setlist, including playing an absolute killer of a Led Zep cover (wow Jon, you can yell!!), and Jon came up onto the crowd barrier right where I was several times! The scariest moment was when he crowdsurfed, and came back right over me. I tried to move aside but he came back to exactly where I was stood, and I ended up helping him back onto the barrier! Now, Jon I could cope with. Less so the burly security guy who followed him, and was not so graceful getting back over the barrier! I had to really back away to avoid getting kicked! But all was well; I managed to hold my space through the whole show and those directly around me were understanding enough to avoid pushing me. Jon took my flag up on stage for Where I Belong, throwing it back to me afterwards. Overall it was a beautiful, intense and surreal experience, and I just hope it wasn’t too much for baby!

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I took my time leaving the venue this time, saying hi to more Switchfam friends and taking advantage of bathroom access, before heading out onto the street to await any aftershow announcements.

After a while of sitting on my folding stool, wrapped in a damp Where I Belong flag, refreshing Twitter, I got munchy, so M ran and bought me some chips… and of course that is when The Tweet arrived! Waiting on the food and then eating whilst walking, I ended up at the back of the crowd behind the venue. The driveway in was on a slope so in the end I set the stool up on the pavement just outside to wait. It began to feel rather like the previous London aftershow as the crowd was hyped and every time there was movement inside or a door opened there were squeals and laughter, and kit and vehicles had to keep coming through the crowd. Weirdly when the door finally opened again and it actually was Jon though I almost didn’t notice, as instead of a roar from the crowd he was greeted by a throng of people all desperate to talk to him.

He pushed through and stood opposite the venue, against a painted wall that at the time seemed to just have random colour splashes on it, but afterwards turned out to have been a mural of a night time city scene. From the back of the crowd I couldn’t catch most of what he said, but he did say he’d been in the shower in the venue and had heard the crowd outside singing as they waited for him, so he had to hurry up and get out without cutting himself shaving hastily!

He played us Caroline, Thrive, Twenty Four, and then as he wasn’t hearing my request for Let Your Love Be Strong, another person in the crowd helped me out by yelling it to him ‘for the pregnant lady!’. Might he actually play it..? He looked over the crowd to where we were and dedicated the song to ‘the three of us’… but then played Your Love Is Strong instead! Ah well! I love that one too.

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The baby loved the aftershow I think; having been subdued during the concert, which was probably a bit loud and confusing for it, it danced all the way through Jon’s set. It clearly takes after its mum!

Afterwards I let him go; he was too far into the crowd and going the opposite way from me back to the venue, and was being pressed on all sides by fans wanting a moment with him, so M and I headed back to get some sleep. A surreal and precious evening.

Cologne, July 9th

Cologne was the very next day.

I’d had a choice when booking our trains out to either go for a 9am or 11am train. Now ordinarily I would have been on that 9am, getting us there in time for VIP. But the 11am gave us more time to rest and eat and take our time getting to the hostel and venue for the evening’s concert. Even that morning I was still keeping an open mind about whether to go or not, depending if I felt up to it. So we did that; no VIP this time, baby first. We picked up some fresh orange juice and sandwiches from the market and were on our way to the train, a short and pleasant walk from the hotel.

The Eurostar is fast and we were in Cologne by mid afternoon. Since we were not going to get much other sightseeing time there we walked to the hostel from the train. It was about a 45 minute walk, which is about as long as I can go at the moment without needing a bathroom stop, though baby wasn’t playing ball this time, forcing a sneaky pit stop at McDonalds for facilities! That apart, it was a nice walk and we saw some parts of the city we’d not seen before, including an imposing medieval gate house.

But after all the travel I was already pretty tired. Both of us pretty much crashed out on arriving at the hostel and it took a lot of effort to drag ourselves out again.

We picked up falafels and ate them in the queue for the show. It became apparent that this was a much smaller show than the previous night, and we were the only non German speakers there, which was awkward. My German may have improved a little since 2015, but I still can’t produce much of it or understand more than the basics of what is said to me, whilst M has never learnt 😦 The venue itself was very unusual; it was a literal church, in use as a music venue but still with all its fittings, even down to (moveable) pews, Bible verses on the walls and hymn number boards! Thankfully, pews had been cleared from the floor for the show however.

My feet were aching even before the band started, and I wasn’t allowed the folding stool in the venue, so I sat on the floor a bit before they came on, but I was still achey. I was second row, right in the middle, and there really wasn’t anything but the floor to support me there. It was going to be a physically tougher experience than the previous night.

If the venue wasn’t already a little weird, the show started weirdly too; Jon came out on his own to welcome us there! Then he brought on Erick (their photographer, who has a band of his own) to play us some songs as they had no official opener, which was nice, before beginning the show for real.

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The intended setlist was pretty much identical to London’s, and sadly they clearly were not ready with the deep cuts they have promised for the fall tour, sticking with the same big hits. However, no two Switchfoot shows are ever the same, and I had never seen anything like this one!

To start with, the atmosphere was quite mellow. They opened with Take My Fire, then went into We Are One Tonight (not the last night of the tour this time, but it’s always special), then Love Alone, for which Jon actually stayed on stage rather than venturing into the crowd. In keeping with the laid back vibe they then played Live It Well and On Fire, then gave us Voices. Still the crowd seemed fairly passively engaged.

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Then suddenly, about a third of the way through the set as they started to play Stars, it was as if a spark landed on fuel somewhere and the crowd just exploded; there was moshing and crowd surfing and people on shoulders and everything!! I’ve rarely seen that happen at all at Switchfoot’s shows before, certainly not to quite that extent, and the change in energy in the room was stunning! Feeling in danger of being pushed, I got out of the crowd at that point and went and perched on one of the benches at the side instead. Finally I could take the weight off my poor aching feet! I still had a good view from there, and I stood/danced on the bench from time to time.

Now the crowd was on fire they played us The Sound and Meant To Live, rocking out hard, with me dancing on the pews at the edge. Then they all headed into the middle of the crowd, intending to play All I Need. The crowd began singing Hello Hurricane, so they played that first, and then something else extraordinary happened; that entire crazy crowd just sat down around them! It was a true campfire moment!

Getting back up on stage they brought the energy back up once again, playing House Burns and Float (cue more pew dancing!), and again the crowd went wild. After that, Jon began to introduce Only Hope, but clearly changed his mind part way through introducing the song and decided to introduce I Won’t Let You Go instead. M, who had been rocking out at the front, came over and sat with me for that song; it was a really sweet moment, feeling we sang it as a family.

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Native Tongue and Where I Belong finished off the main set, Jon beckoning for my flag once more and throwing it back to me at the end. Then the evening ended with an encore of Dark Horses and Dare, for which Jon went back into the crowd to play, again triggering the crowd to sit down! It really was the most extraordinary show though, I’ve not seen anything like it, neither such a departure from the planned set nor such an unusual and fun crowd!

Afterwards Jon walked us all away to this park way out from the venue for an aftershow, since the venue was in a residential area and had a strict curfew. It was a fairly scrappy piece of land, and it was very dark (so cue lots of comments about how beautiful it was!), but there were crickets singing and grass to set up on. Unlike the previous night, I got right to the front and set up the stool, which I’d retrieved from security, so I could sit down and still be able to see him play. Which was all good, until everyone else once again sat down!! So there I was, sat high on the Awkward Stool, right at the front with Jon, as if I was on stage! Embrace the awkward, as Jon says..! 😀

It was lovely though. He played us June & Johnny, Twenty Four (another fan asked for the story behind the song, which he told, and since I was up front I managed to tell him how amazed I was that as a young guy he had had the depth and wisdom to turn such a small incident into such a powerful and timeless song and to thank him for it, and he really gave me his attention), Inheritance and Only Hope. I sang along, trying to ignore how self-conscious I felt; after all, everyone knew I was sat up there for good reason! It was amazing just to be there and immerse in the music with him.

When the aftershow ended we had no idea where we were, so just followed him back to the venue from where we could get our bearings, and whilst I did no more than to thank him for the night and wish him all the best for the Bon Jovi shows, I got to listen as he talked philosophy and books with some other fans as they walked.

We returned to our hostel exhausted but happy.

Then we had a few days in Germany with friends, one of my favourite places I’ve been, near the Black Forest. We explored the beautiful town where they live, did some gentle walks from the trains up in the forest, rowed a boat on a mountain lake, and ate a lot of good icecream too.

Amsterdam, July 15th

Finally it was time for my last show in Amsterdam, M having had to head back home the day before to attend a conference. I stayed at a friend’s flat, this time also with tour buddy Jude, who had had to miss the previous shows due to a pre-booked holiday.

Now I’d seen Switchfoot twice before in London and once before in Cologne, but this year’s venues were new to me. However, they were playing at the Melkweg in Amsterdam again, the same venue they’d opened the 2017 spring tour at, so I was actually familiar with it.

The morning of the show Jude and I chilled out with our friend’s beautiful cats before heading into the city for lunch and the VIP event. I went back to the cafe I’d been to for lunch two years before for falafels and fried aubergines (though this time the aubergines did not accompany me to the concert!), and whilst in there we spotted Chad walking past on the other side of the street, just as we’d been speculating over whether or not we’d see any of the guys out and about! He actually looked our way but didn’t spot us!

The VIP event time had initially been shifted back, so having thought we had plenty of time we were taken aback when it was then shifted forward again at the last minute and we ended up in a rush to get there. But we made it, and so did almost everyone else! When we went in the guys took requests from the start. A Russian fan was there, again seeing them for the first time and really stoked, and he basically gave them his life story and a whole heap of requests. It was quite funny, especially when Jon asked Tim how many he reckoned he knew the words to and Tim responded ‘It’s a round number…’! I held up my Love Is The Movement raincoat in a last attempt to get that request in, but Jon said ‘I like your jacket’ and carried on taking requests! Tim laughed and said ‘He’s not ignoring you Helen, it’s just I don’t think we’ve ever played that one!’ But they played us Daisy and Needle and sounded fantastic.

Then it was time for meet and greet, so they led us through, to the locker area this time! I tried to go last as I had a few things I wanted to say, knowing it was my last show for the foreseeable future, but Jude lost a bag just as she was about to go up and ended up taking the last spot. It was my 24th Switchfoot show, which felt significant, so I’d made a sign for the photo. As soon as Jon saw it he wrote 24 on his hand, so I quickly asked him did he read my letter I’d given them in London telling them how important Let It Happen has been for me, and if they were taking requests, could they play me that one please? I didn’t see him add that to his hand at the time, but later at the aftershow I saw it had been added. I asked them how the Bon Jovi shows had been going and was met with a general chorus of stoked noises! I didn’t catch a word any of them said, I’ll take it that was a good sign! I told them they looked like they totally owned those big stages from what I’d seen. We also chatted about how extraordinary the Cologne show had been. Then I told them the baby is my next adventure, so this show feels a little bittersweet as it will be a while before I can do this again. Jon said ‘It’s all sweet, no bitter’. But I shall miss them! Finally I asked Jon to draw me something for my new notebook, and he drew me a little guitar, I thanked him and all of them, and had to go.

After more falafels(!) it was time for the show. The stage in the Melkweg is very high instead of having a crowd barrier, so I really wasn’t keen on being at the front this time; it was a little uncomfortable the first time and definitely would be with baby on board, so I headed straight up to the balcony and this time got my chosen spot, a little corner by the lighting deck, at the back but right in the middle, with a great view and space to set up the stool to sit on without being in anyone’s way. As a useful bonus – the ladies’ was on the same level! 😀

This was going to be a very different experience from a new perspective.

LionLion opened for them again, as in London (and one of the 2017 shows). They are a great opener, and though they’d had to swap lead vocals as the singer was sick and their order of set was not quite so strong as the order they’d played their songs in at London, I still really enjoyed their performance.

As I was up by the lighting deck I could see a copy of the setlist as one was placed there. They switched it around a lot, though the end result was only one song different to the plan, just played in a different order.

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Well. I don’t know if they read my letter the week before or not, but they did indeed play me Let It Happen! I’d told them I’d be a wreck if they did so please could they put it later in their set so I could work up to it, but they opened with it as they do! So of course, I was a wreck right from the off, yelling the lyrics at the top of my lungs and crying my eyes out! Quite a way to start!

A theme of the evening became ‘embrace the awkward’, a phrase Jon pulled out several times. He said he loves live music as you never know what’s going to happen, people could throw stuff at you… at which point Tim pulled out a pick and threw it at him! And so it went on!

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There were many ‘beautiful and awkward’ moments. During Live It Well, when Jon introduced Romey as being cancer free to emotional applause, Jude, who was up front, pulled out her ‘Another year with Romey’ fundraiser t-shirt, and Jon took it up on stage. He got in the crowd as usual for Love Alone and Float, and did some balcony rail climbing, though he didn’t get as far as where I was stood. A guy in the crowd asked him if he could sing Hope Is The Anthem with him, and Jon broke from singing Float for a brief interlude of that to sing with him, even though he’d had it on the setlist to combine it with Where I Belong at the end. The guys all went into the crowd to play Hello Hurricane and All I Need acoustic, and when they started to head back to the stage, Tim was hoisted up by the crowd and crowdsurfed his way back – I don’t know if he asked or not but it was funny, especially watching Jon watching him! And of course, Jon had us all arms round shoulders with the ‘perfect strangers’ next to us.

I got a recording of their performance of Voices this time, I love how they do it live, especially Jon’s yell at the end. And he gave me a little shoutout for Twenty Four, saying he’d met someone who was at their 24th show so it felt right that they play it. It was beautiful! I got my 24th show sign out and held it up on the balcony rail and just soaked in it. I also held out the Where I Belong banner across the rail, and my old ‘Thank you Jon, you inspire me’ banner at the end. I don’t know if they saw them, I didn’t see Jon look my way, but it was there if he did.

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Somehow Jon was just extra captivating that evening. I was better rested than in Cologne and had plenty of space up on the balcony and a great view, so it was really relaxed and I could just rock out and not worry. I was utterly mesmerised by their performance. It was pure wide eyed wonder!

There were a lot of tears too, probably partly the baby hormones but it all meant a lot to me. I was so up for more when it ended and wished they could have given us a proper encore. I left the venue still with tears streaming down my face from Dare You To Move.

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After the show we waited about outside. The crowd was big so it took me a while to find anyone I knew! Even still, many people only waited a short time to see if there would be an aftershow, so the crowd had thinned by the time we got The Tweet. We all headed up the street back to the same bridge he had sung on two years previously. It was a bit of a wait and some of the fans began singing Amazing Grace, and we all joined in! Then a funny moment – a guy rocked up on a bike (naturally. Amsterdam.) wearing a comedy hat and carrying a halloween mask and rubber duckie on his back, and he stopped and chatted to the crowd for a while! No idea what that was about but it was entertaining!

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Eventually Jon showed up and this time stopped short of the actual bridge (presumably as he didn’t want the crowd to block it). I ended up standing in the middle of the crowd this time. Erick came out with Jon again and livestreamed Jon from behind, looking at us all. Jon played Only Hope, Joy Invincible/We’re Gonna Be Alright, and Your Love Is A Song. It was so good, but I began to get uncomfortable standing in a small space and having to crane my neck to see, so I cheekily asked the guys in front of me if I could squeeze through to the front to put my stool out so I could sit, and they let me. No-one else was sitting down this time so all was well. Jon continued on, saying he wanted to stay right there and not have to leave, playing Inheritance, June & Johnny and Your Love Is Strong. But at some point my stool wobbled, and in trying to stabilise it I fell off, right in front of Jon and the internet! He was most concerned and kept asking if I was ok, but I was completely fine! Funny, and beautiful, and all the awkward! That little stool has caused some ‘moments’!

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Afterwards I just managed to touch his arm and say thank you, and he asked again if I was ok and I reassured him I was. We were going to leave and head back to my friend’s flat but Jude wanted to go over to the bus to see the others so eventually we followed.

Jon came out again, clearly not ready to leave, and chatted some more to us and a few others who were waiting there, including chatting a little in Spanish with some Salvadorean fans. He said he’d been writing some more on this tour! Still under some kind of spell from that magical performance, my usual ‘hands off’ rule had gone entirely out the window and I gave him a little hug and told him I’d made a commitment on first seeing him live that I’d go to every show of his that I could from then on, and that I hoped to bring the baby along in person some day. Finally he headed back to the bus. The last one of them we saw was Chad. In a bizarre moment of deja vu we saw him inside the venue trying to get out and finding all the doors shut, an exact repeat of what had happened the previous time! He appeared a moment later from the other side of the venue and he congratulated me a last time and we said final goodbyes before leaving.

And that was that, a final(?) tour in the books! I headed home, my fan mania running so high. Tomorrow knows what tomorrow knows. 🙂

When loving one another is not enough

 

(Edit: He has now published a much stronger piece, more the sort of challenging message that I at least need to hear. Read it here; it’s better than mine.)

Last night Switchfoot posted up a new message from Jon Foreman, responding to the state of America from his position, seeing that in a divided world people can still come together through music, and calling for fans to respond to current events with love for their fellow Americans:

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This message is good; but with the greatest respect to my hero, very inadequate.

The problem is not just division, it’s that we are divided over real-world issues and how to respond to them. The problem is not a lack of love, but that love can look very different to another person, even to the extent of threatening your view of what love looks like in a particular situation. And loving ‘fellow Americans’ is nowhere near enough in a global world, where we have to engage with the rest of the world, where people the world over are made in God’s image and loved by God.

Telling us we need to love one another is vital, but not enough. Yes we need to engage with those we don’t agree with, and do it with kindness, listening, and consideration.

But that alone is not enough. The problem is not just division; the problem is there are real world problems we need to address. Simply showing love to the white supremacist does not address white supremacy. Simply loving the person who disagrees with us on what to do about gun violence does not solve the gun violence crisis. We absolutely have to cross the room and listen and engage and work together, but we do also have to do the work somehow.

I am convinced we all think we are motivated by love. We just differ in what love looks like to us, and when we see another group acting against what we think is loving, we feel our love is being attacked by ‘the haters’ and get defensive. It’s easy to see that those we agree with are the ones being loving in the situation, up against The Other, who clearly lack love and need to come together with us.

An example: To one side of the gun violence issue it is clear. They are motivated by deep love for their children and those of others. They believe in the good guy with the gun, in the freedom to carry weapons to defend their family and be a hero if confronted with danger. This is what love looks like. To take away that defence is insanity, the other side clearly do not love enough to want to protect our children. But to that other side, the picture is different. They too deeply love their children and those of others. They believe the evidence of other countries that have vastly reduced gun deaths by regulating the availability of guns. To keep so many weapons in circulation, available at any time to anyone, including weapons designed to kill large numbers of people very quickly, is insanity, the other side clearly do not love enough to want to protect our children. Both are love positions. But they disagree deeply on what love looks like.

There are differences of approach too. To one group, love looks like keeping quiet about the divisive issues and simply being kind to those around us. From that perspective, those who speak out are troublemakers out to stir up hatred and fracturing society. But from the other perspective, love looks like speaking out against evil and challenging injustice. From that perspective, keeping quiet is acceptance of and complicity with that evil and injustice. Even the white supremacist is presumably motivated by love, albeit a very narrowly defined love that loves only a certain group and resents the idea of that group giving any power to or sharing any resources with another group.

This is where the call to ‘love our fellow Americans’ becomes dangerously inadequate. We need to go so, so beyond love for our fellow citizens, and expand our hearts to love all humanity beyond borders. It is perfectly possible to love your fellow Americans, documented citizens, perhaps those descended from the founding European pioneers, but struggle to tolerate those citizens who have arrived more recently and/or from other backgrounds, and to not at all love the ‘foreigner’. That love is really too small. It could condone the worst atrocities committed against those who fall outside its narrow boundaries. The same goes for those of us who live elsewhere. Here in the UK, there are plenty who again love their fellow Brits – perhaps those whose ancestors have been here hundreds of years and who fit their mental image of what England should look like – and resent sharing any resources with those they perceive as ‘foreigners’, whether that be minority groups, the EU or refugees, because they love those who fit their ideals over and above others and wish them to be able to enjoy all the country’s benefits without having to share with anyone else. It is love – but it is too small.

I realise in saying this that this is my version of love. But I truly do not believe that love for our own countrymen is enough on its own to fix our nations. If nothing else, God’s love is bigger than our borders, affirming that every person is made in God’s image and worth dying for, wherever they happen to have been born. We have to try to love on that scale at least, even if it takes a lot of listening and heartache to work out how practically to move forward in living that out together.

And yes, we do need to move forward into action, because individual kindness will not solve those society-wide, and global, crises we face. It may well begin by finding the common ground, and recognising the love position of The Other. But where someone’s love position is too narrowly defined, that probably does need challenging somehow, and even where it isn’t, there will be vast differences to work through before a practical solution can arise out of that common ground.

‘Love one another’ is necessary, but not sufficient.

No towers

Tonight at church we were studying Psalm 48. The speaker’s delivery made my attention wander, but for once it wandered back to the text itself.

At first, this psalm sounds militaristic, nationalistic. Look how great and strong our city is, how our enemies tremble in fear! But on second reading, I saw something else, something much more deeply challenging – God has shown Himself to be their fortress (verse 3). God makes her secure forever (verse 8). Why are the kings trembling in terror (verses 4-7)? What are the citizens doing that might instil such fear? They are meditating on God in His temple, worshipping (verses 9-11).

Here is what really struck me. Verses 12-14 instruct us to walk round Zion. Count her towers. Consider her ramparts and citadels. What do you see..? This is what I saw:

*There aren’t any*!

God is her fortress. There are no towers, no citadels, no ramparts to this great city. Only her God.

What gains the victory and sends evil and danger fleeing is pure worship and trust in God – not our own defences and the security we build up for ourselves. How can we truly trust God if we are hemmed in by our own defences, our earthly, man made security systems? We will all the time be trusting in those things, perhaps in addition to God, perhaps entirely in place of God. But how can we ever know whilst our towers remain in place? It’s not till we are vulnerable and simply look fully to God that we are truly trusting God, and truly being defended by him.

What are our towers? Count them? Do we have any? I think I do, we do, and as long as we do, we do not look like God’s city – God’s people. Can we tear them down..?

The Time Is Now to act on climate change

Today thousands of people are in London meeting with their MPs to ask them to prioritise action on climate change and related environmental issues. I would ordinarily be there myself, but have not been able to this time around.

If like me you care about climate change, pollution and the decline of nature, you can still take part remotely by writing to your MP. You can either write your own freeform letter, or use a template such as this to make sure we are all making coherent asks of our representatives – and if you use a template, or write via writetothem.com, you don’t even need to know their name or address; the sites will find your MP for you based on your address. You could just send a template letter as is, but it will have more impact if you personalise it and say why it matters to you.

We really need action to reduce our emissions – fast. The sooner we make real emissions cuts, the smaller the impacts and the less costly it will be to deal with. So please take a moment to tell your MP this is important!

Here is a copy of my personalised letter to my MP, based on the easy to use draft template the RSPB have provided here, since the demands are very strong:


Dear (MP),

Sadly I have not been able to come and see you in Westminster today for ‘The Time is Now’ mass lobby for nature and climate, due to pregnancy. However, it’s really important to me that you know how much I care about the environment and what I want you to do to protect it.

We’re facing a crisis. The world is hitting record-breaking temperatures, with the poorest communities impacted first, and hardest. The devastating decline in biodiversity is set to wipe out a million species (including here in the UK). Our oceans are warming, acidifying, overfished and polluted, and our children breathing deadly air pollution. The science is clear and the impacts are already being felt.

I studied environmental and climate science in the early 2000s, and worryingly we are already seeing some of the effects that at that time we did not expect to be seeing till the middle of this century, from rapid loss of polar ice and permafrost to increased human migration, forced in part by changes to the climate of the tropics.

The political response needs to be far bigger and faster. This is not a future problem: the time is now. I welcome the verbal commitment of the government to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but we really need to get there much, much sooner, and be acting upon it now, with firm legal commitments to action along the way. As my MP, I need you to do everything in your power to maximise action for our climate, nature and people, in the UK and globally. Please write to your party leadership to give your full support to the following:

1. Legislate immediately to:

– End the UK’s contribution to climate change: set a legally binding net zero greenhouse gas target of 2045 at the latest, met domestically and including all sectors. Rapidly phase out all fossil fuels, and slash emissions now to get us on track.

– Clean up our environment and restore nature: pass a flagship Environment Act with ambitious new targets for healthy air, clean water, thriving wildlife, green spaces where people live, and eliminating waste and plastic pollution. Create a powerful, independent watchdog to make sure these are achieved.

2. Scale up investment to tackle the climate and environmental emergency fairly and democratically: at a minimum, ensure spending of 2% of GDP per year for climate action and restoring nature both at home and abroad, starting now.

3. Put the environment and climate action at the heart of the UK’s international agenda:

– Accelerate progress towards achieving global goals on climate change, nature protection and restoration and sustainable development at the three major UN summits in 2020 and the G7 in 2021.

– Rule out signing trade deals with countries that are not implementing the Paris Agreement or upholding human rights and environmental standards.

Thank you for doing everything you can to protect our planet and future generations. I look forward to seeing you stand up for nature and climate in parliament and hearing about how today’s lobby has gone.

Thank you for your time.

The green desert

The Wildlife Trusts recently released a little film based upon The Wind In The Willows, designed to show how our precious British wildlife is in trouble and calling us to rally together to act to save it.

It is powerful and very well done. But something (other than Ratty’s accent) has been bothering me. It’s taken me a while to put my finger on what it is exactly, but I think I have it:

The film begins with typical scenes from the story, Mole and Ratty having a picnic in a beautiful lush riverside meadow, Badger at home in his underground house, Toad speeding down verdant country lanes on his latest fad, a motorbike… and then all changes. Bulldozers move in, the countryside is laid to waste with roads and the earth churned up to build more. The river, once lush and clear, is now dirty brown with obvious pollution pouring in and litter everywhere. The animals are left stranded.

It certainly highlights in dramatic fashion how our nature is losing its homes.

But. This is not our experience, is it?

When we go outside, generally all seems fine if we are honest. The countryside and parks are still lush and green. Our rivers run clear. The sun shines, the birds sing, flowers bloom. Sure, there is rather too much litter in places, and the odd road or housing development is going up here and there, but it is not the scene of utter devastation the film depicts.

That vision, to me, feels too disconnected from reality. I struggle to connect what I see with my eyes with the message that nature is losing its home here in our land. It would be all too easy to see the film, take a look out the window, shrug and carry on. It can’t really be all that bad! Not here.

And yet…

That disconnect is the big problem.

Nature is in absolute crisis. In spite of green appearances, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the entire world, ranking a shocking 189th out of 218 countries studied in terms of how intact our nature is. The vast majority of the country has lost its natural habitat and balance of native wild species; whereas once the country was largely woodland, today just 13% of the country is wooded and much of that is under a century old. We have lost 98% of our wildflower meadows* in under a century. Over half our species have declined since 1970, the figures similar even if we just look at this century, and 15%, that’s 1.5 out of every 10, are either extinct or threatened with extinction in the UK. Of the almost 8,000 species of plants, mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish and invertebrates studied for the State Of Nature Report 2016**, 56% are in decline.

It’s true that the British landscape does not look all that different from when I was a kid growing up in the 1980s.

I visit my parents, who still live in the same place, and things are apparently almost unchanged in all that time (barring a few housing developments of the outskirts of the city that have encroached onto what had been farmland). It is entirely recognisable and familiar, still green and pleasant semi-rural England, not a trace of post-apocalyptic wasteland.

But then I cast my mind back.

My earliest nature memories are of my parents’ fairly ordinary suburban garden. It had tall deciduous hedges running down both sides, and a couple of apple trees at the far end. We had a patio, flower bed, lawn and veg patch. The neighbouring gardens were not dissimilar, though they differed in the amount of open lawn. I remember song thrushes bashing snails on the rocks in the flower beds, blackbirds and robins nesting in the hedges (on one dramatic occasion a blackbird nest was raided by a magpie and ‘I’ aged about 4, presumably with a certain amount of help, wrote in to a TV nature programme about it and had my letter read out!), and being frequently startled by frogs jumping out of the vegetation at me as I walked past in the summer! I remember having to scare off the rowdy flocks of starlings that descended if we tried to feed to birds to make sure the other birds got a look in. Occasionally, a lesser-spotted woodpecker called in and sat on our peanut feeder, shyly edging round to the back if it thought it was being watched. And sadly I remember having to get my parents to check up and down the road in the mornings for dead hedgehogs so I knew when to look away as I walked to school each day. Thankfully we often saw the live animals snuffling about the garden on summer evenings too, but the sad sights on the street were all too frequent. Every year we knew spring had arrived when we woke one morning to the sound of a cuckoo singing somewhere nearby, most usually in the trees of a neighbouring garden.

Out and about, our favourite local walk took us out down the back lanes from our large, suburban village into the countryside, where as a child I liked to see all the different farm animals. Along the lanes we would see flocks of swooping swallows, hear yellowhammers singing for bread and no cheese, a song I learnt very early on, and frequently spotted owls and partridges. Drive anywhere and the skies were full of lapwings, year round, a sight so everyday I blanked them. And on summer evenings, even as a teenager in the 90s, the car would become liberally decorated with insect remains, the lights often picking up small animals darting across the road or swooping bats or owls. A walk along the canal in early summer almost always guaranteed you the sight of a cuckoo, and the waterside hedges were alive with warblers singing away.

It all looks much the same today. The village, fields, lanes, canals and hedges are all still there, even if some of the hedges are now rather sparse in places. But if I compare my experiences back then with my experience of the same landscapes now, something has changed.

The song thrushes, hedgehogs, cuckoos and lesser-spotted woodpeckers are gone from the neighbourhood. There are still thrushes out there, but they are shy woodland birds, no longer the common garden snail-bashers that children would grow up familiar with. I don’t recall the last time I even saw a hedgehog dead in a rural area, much less in a town or village, or a live animal. Today it seems unthinkable that the latter two species would ever occur in a suburban garden at all, much less within an ordinary agricultural landscape like the one I grew up in. It’s an exciting day when a frog is spotted; they no longer spawn in the pond. Starlings are seen in small numbers in the winter, but are gone by spring; the great winter murmurations I used to watch from my bedroom window are now something to travel to a nature reserve or seaside town to witness, the noisy bird-table-raiding summer flocks a thing of the past. And it is now a rare neighbourhood with gardens as green as those I grew up with. Perhaps slug pellet use may have gone down in that time – but so has acceptance of trees, hedges and ponds. Most gardens are still green, but that green is typically lawn, low maintenance ornamental planting, or even plastic turf, walled in by solid, wildlife-proof fences.

Last time we walked out along the lanes, to my delight we did indeed see swallows and a yellowhammer – but I certainly don’t see so many these days. Most of the time I am out and about in the countryside in summer these days I would expect to see a few swallows, but would get excited if I encountered a yellowhammer as a rare treat. If I see partridges now, they are the introduced red legged partridge, and usually they are present in large numbers with the equally introduced pheasant – any there is always a game release not far away. The native grey partridges are gone. In contrast to my childhood experience, I have perhaps seen two in this country in my adult life, despite being a keen birder. I no longer see lapwings at all when I visit my parents unless we go to a wetland nature reserve in winter or happen to see a few passing high overhead. It’s been some time since the farmland in their area played host to the flocks it used to. Where I now live in the south west I do see them – but I know I am privileged to live in cycling distance of one of their last two breeding grounds in the region, a nature reserve where the field they breed on has to be protected from predators by use of an electric fence, so precarious their existence here has become. Driving about on a summer’s evening no longer requires screenwash, and rarely affords the sight of an owl or a small shape running across the road, unless it is a rabbit or fox. And to see a cuckoo these days requires a special trip to one of their last strongholds; here, that means hunting about on Dartmoor, where small numbers cling on, or a visit to the nature reserves of the Somerset Levels. They are gone elsewhere, and certainly would no longer be seen or heard by the canal near my parents. Lesser-spotted woodpeckers? Wow. Ancient woodland only, and only if you listen and look very carefully.

All of this in my short lifetime in a landscape still so green and familiar. Nothing seems to have changed, yet casting my mind back, everything has.

The disconnect goes deeper too.

I believe the British public care about nature; the current outrage over single-use plastic generated by Blue Planet is an obvious sign of this. But here is the problem; because of the visibility of this issue, I get the impression most people think that this is the biggest threat nature faces. This was highlighted in a recent survey by Surfers Against Sewage, asking their members what they thought the biggest threats to the ocean were and what they should therefore focus their campaigning on. Plastic*** topped the poll. In reality, as visibly disgusting as plastic pollution is, it is only one small aspect of pollution affecting our land and marine environment, and pollution itself as a whole, though important, is having a much lesser impact on nature than other less visible issues. In the oceans, climate change and over-exploitative and damaging fishing practices are by far and away the biggest causes of loss, whilst on land, agricultural change, climate change again, and other forms of habitat loss such as wetland drainage or changes in forest management are driving the declines. Unlike plastic, none of this results in a sea less blue or a countryside less green, but catastrophe is unfolding nonetheless.

The barren nightmare vision of the Wildlife Trusts’ film is not what ecological crisis really looks like, most of the time. In all honesty, whilst most our nature is declining imperceptibly, there are a few evident species we can see bucking the trends, as species like buzzards and otters recolonise and the occasional conservation success is rightly heralded, making it even harder to see the underlying problem. In spite of the shocking declines nature is experiencing, more than half of the British public actually think that nature is in a better state today than 50 years ago.

Ecological crisis in reality looks deceptively green and pleasant, whilst our expectations of our experience of nature gradually, imperceptibly erode.

We look out on a countryside that still feels delightfully lush to ourselves. But what we can’t easily see is that to nature, the landscape is becoming a green desert, fields being cropped and harvested at the wrong times of year for ground nesting birds, hedges left to grow straggly and sparse or cut or flailed so hard back that they no longer afford safe nesting cover, and wild plants, ‘weeds’, being so near eradicated from arable land, pasture, verges and gardens that there is very little food available across vast swathes of landscape for pollinating insects, seed eaters, or the creatures that eat them. Invasive species have invaded, our riverbanks now festooned in beautiful Himalayan balsam and buddleia, leaving no room for wildflowers or the invertebrates that rely on them, whilst in the water signal crayfish and mink prey upon native species. Even pasture land has changed – from species-rich grassy meadows full of different grasses and wild plants, supporting all manner of other species and grazed by a range of different cattle breeds, much pasture now is a near monoculture of pure grass, grazed by high milk-yielding, intensive breeds of cattle. Still green, even more lush – but unwelcoming to nature.

I might well still be able to go out and have a nice picnic by a verdant riverside – but I would be accompanied today by fewer singing birds, blooming wildflowers and buzzing insects than I would 100 years ago, and would be very unlikely to bump into Ratty or Toad.

We need to wake up to what we’ve lost, in spite of appearances, and lift our expectations. Somehow we have to scratch the surface and see how impoverished we have become, and turn things around. Whatever the shortcomings of the Wildlife Trusts’ film, we should step up to its challenge to get involved and call for greater action to protect our nature. There is still time – where we make an effort and intervene we can and do turn declines around, and examples like the RSPB’s Hope Farm have shown it is possible to run a profitable modern farming business in a way that still benefits nature – but we must wake up and see what we are not seeing.


*That is, real species-rich grassland, a habitat vital to a huge diversity of species, which is not the same as beds planted with annual flower mixes. Most of our wildflowers are not even annuals at all! This figure comes from the Save Our Magnificent Meadows project.

**All other stats in this paragraph come from this report, pulled together by over 50 different conservation and research organisations.

***Most marine plastic is in fact not single-use plastic such as bottles and carrier bags, but microplastics from a range of sources (including the synthetic fibres of our clothes), and fishing gear.

The Brexit fiasco

What can I say about Brexit that hasn’t already been said? What can my voice add to all the noise that’s already out there?

Maybe my own position…

I can’t be on the People’s Vote march today as health currently doesn’t permit. But if it did, I would absolutely be there.

I voted remain. Although there is plenty I dislike about the EU, I can’t see any advantage to leaving and losing our influence to change those things, and can see far, far more benefits to membership. I believe in international cooperation and freedom of movement. Although I voted remain, I can respect that we lost the vote in 2016 (the remain campaign was stunningly uninspiring it has to be said!). However – the result was extremely close. Since 2016, it has come to light that not only were the promises of the vote leave campaign false, but that the campaign broke the law, and that all economic analyses have concluded that all Brexit options would leave the country worse off than currently. Many leave voters have changed their opinion on the basis of all this. Polls are still close but seem now to be marginally in favour of remaining. Meanwhile, the government has ploughed ahead stubbornly as if the vote had been a landslide in favour of leaving the EU, refusing to engage in any debate or listen to any nuance. I feel like the almost half of voters who voted remain have been ignored and silenced through the whole process, in spite of current evidence being in favour of remaining. Both sides needed to have been listened to, but what we have seem instead has been inflammatory polarisation, extremists pitched against each other, and only one side being given any influence.

Looking at it pragmatically, I would have thought it would have made sense for the government to look at the result of the referendum and take note that leave won by a narrow margin. Therefore since almost as many people voted to remain, a sensible way to proceed would be to perhaps plan to leave since that is undeniably how the vote came out, but to spend a good period researching what reasons people had for voting the ways they did on each side and what aspects came out most strongly as to what people liked and disliked about EU membership and hoped to get from the result in future. Then they could have come up with a range of possible outcomes, carefully negotiated with the EU, to try to meet those aims, and put these back to the people directly or to parliament to vote on. Once a course of action had been agreed, likely a leave scenario, but possibly not, given that it looks like leaving will not benefit the country, that would then be the point at which to trigger Article 50 if needed. We could then have spent the two years carefully preparing a good exit strategy and making sure the legal framework and trade deals were all in place and well communicated to the population by the time we exited to allow businesses and British and EU citizens to know where they stood and make appropriate plans.

However, this is not what has happened.

Whilst I recognise it is a very tough job and what I’ve suggested as a sensible way to proceed would not be nearly as straightforward as I make it sound, there is no excuse for the shambolic way this has been handled so far, with Article 50 being triggered before there was any semblance of a plan, and the time to exit day simply being run down to force last minute decisions.

On Thursday I attended a talk that was supposed to be about the impact of Brexit on farming and farmland wildlife. However, with just over a week to go to exit day, the speaker was still having to speak speculatively about what possible impacts Brexit might have. What a crazy situation, to not even know what the law will be next week! It sickened me to think how this is impacting farmers, who will be having to plan their crops, livestock, and land management operations for the year, or years, ahead, without even knowing what the legal requirements on them will be, or what payments or support they will receive. Conservationists are in a similar position, being unsure what legal frameworks will or won’t exist to protect nature in just a week’s time, what funding will be available, and what their own legal requirements will be.

How have we got to this situation?!

Businesses, institutions, investors and workers are leaving the country en masse because of the uncertainty already. In a week’s time, those of us left with it could be facing food and medicine shortages, and a breakdown in legal frameworks that could cause severe damage to the country and to us. And yet, we still do not know!

What staggers me the most is that the media is still baying that the patriotic thing to do is to press on with the course of action we know will damage our country the most, crashing out with no deal, and that the most democratic thing to do would be to deny the public and their MPs any further say in the matter, and that the public are buying it on a large scale!

Leaving the EU could have been done well. With some pragmatic acceptance that we got it wrong this time, we could still revoke Article 50, and still start the process over again, making it work as well as it can.

But right now we face a national crisis. Disaster needs to be averted.

This is why I support a new vote, with all leave and remain options on the ballot, and also support the Revoke Article 50 campaign.

If we are to leave, we need to stop, cool off, rethink, and then do it well. Otherwise, we need to be given the chance to do what currently seems to be the best we can for the country by remaining.

Native Tongue

Today Switchfoot are back from their (thankfully, in hindsight, hilariously short) hiatus with their eleventh full album, Native Tongue. I was treated to an advance preview as a volunteer music reviewer a couple of months ago, so I wanted to offer my personal review in addition to the official review I had published:

Put aside any preconceived ideas about what Switchfoot are about, or you will miss the point.

They’ve been around long enough they don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

Continuing what they started on ‘Where The Light Shines Through’ but taking it to new levels, this is a playful, creative, and highly accomplished exploration of sound. Every Switchfoot album is distinct in style, but this one promised a sonically disparate collection of songs and it certainly delivers! Influences on show span Queen, The Beatles, Coldplay and the White Stripes, the music of the Pacific islands, Celtic fringes and southern Africa, gospel, hair rock, hiphop, EDM and synth-rock, alongside styles they’ve already made fully their own, and full-on guitar solos nestle amongst layers of brass and strings. With WTLST they had experimented with different styles a little, let their influences show through here and there, and finally begun to show off their solo and improvisational skills a little, something they do effortlessly live but had always held back in the studio. But this takes that creative and experimental approach up a gear or two.

So let’s go:

The songs

The massive Let It Happen erupts euphorically over the soul in dramatic fashion. On the whole, the feel evokes 90s Britpop (something akin to The Verve); this is my era, my sound, and the passion it oozes brings me to tears of pleasure every time. And yet, they have worked into it a full-on Queen-esque solo!! I think they stole Brian May. Jon’s vocals are stunningly powerful as he voices our fears and anxieties yet entreats us to embrace the chaos and live in the now, as, paraphrasing Jesus, worrying about the future will not change it. This song has arrived in my life with perfect timing, the message exactly what I need as I feel myself walking into a new year that is going to shake my whole world up in many ways.

Let It Happen is followed by the similarly dramatic, infectious, drum-driven title track. Its message of remembering our origins in childlike love and acceptance is echoed by the tribal feel of the sound. The danceable beat gives way unexpectedly to a quietly moody outro, evoking the best of their b-side work. The message is good, but here is my concern – don’t we all think we are motivated by love? None of us identify as ‘the haters’. We just differ in our views of love. And when someone seems to be attacking your view of love, you get defensive, hence our divisions. Telling us to love is not sufficient; we need to learn to listen across those divides to understand the love position of The Other somehow… I have to listen in context of what I have heard Switchfoot speak about more explicitly about listening to one another across our divides and working from our common ground to fully understand what they mean here. It’s all too easy to simply extol the virtues of being nice to those we come into contact with, whilst shying away from politics because it is difficult, thus allowing the terrible things happening in our world go ahead unchallenged. Taken alone, I fear this song could reinforce that idea, but in context of Switchfoot’s example of trying to listen to and understand The Other before jumping in with our own views, I know it’s much bigger.

Next we reach the beating heart of the album – the beautiful, soulful, spiritual All I Need. The vocals here are gorgeous, and there is a bit of a Celtic feel to the melody (though not the sound, which is big-production Switchfoot). Developing the theme of what really matters in life previously explored in If The House Burns Down Tonight, the song forms the unifying thesis of the album around which the other songs seem to hang. Its central heart-on-sleeve question feels exposed and vulnerable.

After this, the edgy, bass-driven hiphop of Voices changes up the sound again. It explores anxiety, especially in a world with lots of information and opinions jostling for our attention, and how we are all so full of ‘voices’ of our own on the inside too, all our doubts and insecurities that can so fill our heads when our minds are not well. I will be honest, though I like it enough, this track low-level irritates me – but there has been at least one on every album and to a greater or lesser extent I always get over it*! I spent a while trying to think what it reminds me of, and eventually hit on it – Justin Timberlake!! Sorry. 😀 But the backing harmonies are lovely, and the use of a ticking clock sound at one point is spot on, and soundwise it does connect back to earlier work, most notably parts of Vice Verses. The song was released back in November, and the music video is a work of art that adds so much to the song itself, really bringing all its angst to the fore and lifting the music. It manages to be poignant, creepy and humorous all at once, and is really visually creative.

Dig New Streams sounds uncannily like it escaped from the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s** and somehow found its way to Switchfoot, quirky, trippy, and packed with awesome riffs, solos and changes of pace and time. It’s so accurate it made me laugh out loud in amazement that they could have pulled this off! I need to live with these lyrics a little more, but I hear Jesus again, this time throwing a lifeline to those hurt by our religion, and it’s certainly the most original of the album.

Joy Invincible’s soft vocals are luscious. This track has an electronic vibe, a huge sonic soundscape that would fill a club, and nice guitarwork under the ending. It’s very moving, and I would love to know the back story.

It leads nicely into the raw and passionate Prodigal Soul. A raw, acoustic opening becomes full band plus strings; it feels vulnerable, and a bit Coldplay, as Jon finds himself identifying with the homecoming son of Jesus’ famous parable.

Next stop on this musical mystery tour is the full-on EDM of The Hardest Art, blending elements of 80s electronica with bang-up-to-date synth rock – and do I detect a touch of Abba?! Guest vocalist Kaela Sinclair takes the second verse, and for just a moment as their voices join together in a gorgeous acoustic interlude there are echoes of Jon’s solo work. The repeated refrain ‘the hardest art is love is surrender is love is the hardest art’ is stirringly anthemic and I cannot help singing it out. And then, something uniquely precious to my ears – the track closes with a touch of soaring guitar that sounds remarkably like Stu G (think the close of Delirious?’s Obsession)! I have goosebumps…

The deliciously laid-back, piano dominated Wonderful Feeling comes next, another track strongly influenced by The Beatles, particularly with its unconventional chord progressions and build up. Jon’s vocals are incredible once again, as again he demonstrates seemingly effortless vocal control, moving back and forth between forceful expression and pretty falsetto, and we are also given another guitar solo, this time more in the relaxed style of George Harrison.

And then another twist, as the unexpected, heavy, headbanging riff of Take My Fire crashes in. Jon’s voice now sounds classic-rock rugged, and though you can tell Hendrix isn’t far away, this is definitely born of the White Stripes’ school of 21st-century rock. The bluesy feel and spiritual theme also made me think of Verra Cruz, another of my favourite bands but too little known to be an influence.

All jangling guitars and lush harmonies in 6/8, The Strength To Let Go has a Celtic, folky thing going on again, but again this is big-production, big-sound CCM. By the time we reach the heartfelt ‘I am lightning and You are the ground!’ it really feels like a Rend Collective classic! But we are treated to a little ‘ha!’ of Jon’s early on, which I couldn’t help but smile on hearing.

Oxygen is a vulnerable and gentle soft rock ballad featuring slide guitar. It’s left me wondering where such a powerful break up song has come from, especially as it so accurately captures the unreal sensation of losing something (or someone) you had come to depend on, but it’s a tear jerker that is going to hold close folks going through loss and break up.

We’re Gonna Be Alright follows, blending global musical influences and an immensely fun bass riff in a similar vein to When Was The Last Time (minus the arcade game midi), and definitely recalling Michael Franti both in style and content. Appropriately for a piece about reassurance, the vocals have the intimate quality of a father whispering into the ear of a child. You can’t help but feel it. I hope this makes it into their live sets; I can see it already, everyone clapping along and singing the chorus together.

You’re The One I Want closes this eclectic album with a simple piano and cello love song; it feels like it connects right back to The Legend Of Chin somehow even in the vocal style, but now everything has grown up – a resolution of the early relationship angst, a certainty, a maturity of understanding, and the grungy vocals of a song like You have mellowed into this soft warmth.

The production throughout Native Tongue is stunning, the sound layered and full, every element carefully placed, and it sounds made for vinyl.

My perspective

I think after three albums now I can finally state that Jon’s writing style has changed; prior to this I would not want to have called a change where he could merely have been experimenting with something different, especially without any sort of timeline given for The Wonderlands songs, many of which are typically deeply layered, poetic and philosophical in keeping with Jon’s previous and well known style. But that aside, we’ve seen very little of that since Vice Verses now, and I doubt we’re in for any more gravitational entropy waves. There’s still depth to his themes, and his intellect and prophetic gift are still in evidence, but his writing is so much simpler, more straight-up, and his focus has shifted to rhyme and to creating anthems a crowd can sing out together. Native Tongue, like Fading West and WTLST, is dominated by the strongly-rhyming, hiphop-influenced songwriting that has characterised much of his recent work.

It’s very much a Christian album, the story of a ‘prodigal soul’ finding home in the love of God. Themes from the Gospels shine through strongly, as does the real-life journey of an artist who has spent 20 years wrestling with a sense of being far from home and out of place finally discovering home, both spiritually and in a very earthly sense with his own family. In this respect it feels very introspective and focussed on close personal relationships with family and God, rather than looking outwards to the wider context of our lives in the world.

It’s also their least angsty album to date, lacking their usual lyrical bite, which in such truly angsty times I find a bit hard to swallow. There’s much that will appeal to the American church here, and little to challenge it. With no space given for lament or any encouragement to take a stand it’s not speaking to the current climate for me, but perhaps I haven’t arrived yet myself? Or perhaps it simply underlines the difference between my truth-to-power approach and Switchfoot’s approach of bringing people together into a safe space, both of which are valid and needed in these times.

Perhaps there’s no way back from here and this sense of home to the kind of songwriting that wrestles with the depths – but nor do I wish it on Jon, as I know he’s written those angstier songs from painful experience and he sounds like being in a good place now. That genuinely gives me joy. The songs are clearly written from the heart and I would rather they continue to do that than to write the sort of songs I would have them write. They don’t owe me anything! And these lyrics will doubtless push and challenge me in new ways and find different parts of my life to embed in, just as Let It Happen is doing already.

But they are home. It’s very much a celebration of that.

And it’s all about the music; they certainly can’t be accused of stagnation or of selling themselves short in any way, they’ve thrown it all in there. The range of styles is going to divide opinion, but there’s little doubt it’s a musical masterpiece. In my ‘official’ review I rated it 9/10; this is because although I truly mean that, and it’s perfectly produced (without being overdone, which they’ve been guilty of at times in the past), the range of styles is going to be too broad to appeal to everyone. And it doesn’t have so much in the way of the thought-provoking lyrics I fell in love with Switchfoot for, so I can’t see it being an album I personally live and breathe, that becomes a part of me and helps me engage with the world in the same way as most of their work to date.

For me, it feels a little like listening to the Fiction Family album rather than Switchfoot (though I must emphasise that the sound is still very much Switchfoot not Fiction Family!) – even aside from the fact that that’s previously been Jon’s outlet for his Beatlesier side, it’s musically brilliant but I don’t connect so deeply with most of the lyrics, and you just don’t know what they’re going to pull out next, it’s full of surprises! I feel like that’s where it will sit for me, being enjoyed obsessively when I’m in the right frame of mind for something a bit eclectic as with Fiction Family, rather than being chewed over regularly and meditated upon like a typical Switchfoot album. Because of this I’ve found it hard to rate relative to their other albums. I think I’d say I like it better than Fading West (though that one has such a feel-good sunshiney vibe it probably has the highest play!), though quite a bit less than WTLST, which gave me favourite song after favourite song and, though had its evident influences, simply sounded like Switchfoot showing their own versatility.

I am wowed by their soloing on this album – but they do so here largely in the style of other artists. So whilst they reveal their skills to an impressive extent, we still haven’t had much from the studio of Jon and Drew’s own original mighty improvisational solo styles, which so captivate us live. They remain an elusive treat for those of us who get to see them on stage! But they leave you in no doubt here of their capability. Go see them live if you get the chance!

Bringing in very strong elements of other artists’ sounds also runs the risk for me of triggering my low replay tolerance for many of these other artists, who I can enjoy from time to time in small doses but who will quickly begin to grate on my nerves if I play them too much. Switchfoot have never yet made anything that doesn’t become irritating on repeat for me, and that’s unique, but that has possibly relied on them sounding entirely like themselves.

That said, however many elements they have borrowed from other artists, it’s still very much Switchfoot. Every track has its roots in earlier material somewhere I can trace it back to, and however diverse these songs are they certainly don’t feel disconnected from previous albums. Nor do the tracks feel disconnected from each other. Diverse they may be, but it feels as deliberately crafted as I know it was, every track standing in sharp contrast to its neighbours. And though the sound changes constantly, the lyrical themes are very consistent, perhaps more so than ever, which considering Switchfoot have always crafted albums around strong themes is impressive.

And it really is a joy; I’m very proud of them and glad they’ve finally made this collection, something they’ve hinted at doing for some time now. It’s great to hear what they have been capable of all along. It’s a homecoming.

 

*It’s happening already; M came home the other night to find me playing it loud and stomping round the kitchen to it, so I think it’s winning! 😀

**M says Abbey Road. He is quite correct. 😀 😀