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 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.
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. 😀 😀