Tuesday, January 14, 2014

album review: 'fading west' by switchfoot

The worst thing you could ever say to a rock band is that they're boring.

I'm serious here. Think about it from a larger historical context - there have been plenty of bad rock bands throughout the years, especially whenever certain 'movements' of rock have gotten any sort of prominence in the mainstream. But there's a place in conversation about aggressively bad rock bands, because they're at least interesting to talk about even if it is to viciously slag them over and over again. The name remains embedded in the cultural conversation, and ten years later when we're talking about bad bands, we'll remember them for being awful. As much as so many people hate Nickelback or Linkin Park (and really, there are so many worse bands than either of these two - trust somebody who knows), all the hatred they've received hasn't exactly stopped them and won't wipe from the history books when musical scholars have the misfortune to examine the first decade of the 21st century.

But calling a rock band boring is so much worse - because they might not be bad, per se, but being 'acceptable' or 'passable' often translates in a few years outside of a hardcore fanbase into 'forgettable'. And really, the more I look back on the post-grunge scene of the late-90s and 2000s, the more I see bands in this vein completely disappearing from the cultural memory within a few more years. And you want your music to last... well, I can't think of a worse fate.

And now we come to Switchfoot, one of the most strikingly anonymous rock bands to which I've ever listened - mostly because they sound very much like the watered-down versions of whatever style of music was big at the time. Of course, that didn't exactly surprise me given that they started in the Christian rock scene in the late 90s, and they haven't exactly left that genre behind (I'll come back to this). And while Switchfoot has never really had an evangelical bent, those first five or so albums felt very neutered and lacked a certain edge of them, especially in comparison with their contemporaries like The Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age. They were inoffensive, lightweight rock that didn't take any chances, and considering how much they were cribbing from other bands - first the mainstream post-grunge, then a very poor man's Queens of the Stone Age and then moving towards some of the lighter adult alternative in the mid-2000s. They were never as bad as Skillet or Creed, but neither were they anything close to being worth recommending.

But around their album Oh! Gravity, someone apparently told the band that a shift to a more serious, rougher tone might work better for them. On the one hand, the guitars got harsher and more ragged and started reminding me of Foo Fighters minus the memorable riffs - but on the other hand, the tone got darker, and that made the band a whole lot less tolerable. And it was a number of factors, too: Jon Foreman isn't remotely convincing as a heavier singer, the lyrics still weren't much to write home about, and there was an awkward defensiveness (especially on Vice Verses) that really got on my nerves. Despite the fact that Switchfoot never went evangelical, their lack of real humour or wit began to make their preachier songs a lot less tolerable. So I wasn't exactly enthused when I geared myself up to listen to Fading West. I mean, after seven goddamn albums of lightweight, not-particularly memorable Christian rock, did Fading West manage to surprise me?

Yeah, it did - but not in a good way. Somehow, Switchfoot did something I wasn't expecting: they made their most sterile, lightweight, and hopelessly generic album to date, which is somehow even more anonymous and devoid of personality than their previous works. It's not even grating or obnoxious in the way some bad Switchfoot songs have been - it's the sort of music that inspired only one immediate response from me: 'well, that was sound. Can I listen to something else now?'

Let's start with the instrumentation, where, once again, Switchfoot has decided instead of crafting a distinctive instrumental identity, they'd emulate one that's already popular. In this case, the percussion-heavy, reverb-and-distortion saturated, choral-overloaded modern rock sound favoured by acts like Imagine Dragons. And in theory, this isn't a bad idea - lending a lightweight act like Switchfoot some gravitas or presence isn't a bad choice, and you can tell they're trying to make the band 'sound' bigger and more important. It reminded me a lot of the production work done on 30 Seconds To Mars' third album This Is War - and frankly, it's just about as ineffectual as that mess was. The issue is a common one to Switchfoot and more prevalent than ever in modern rock: a lack of a solid, interesting melody line driven by guitars that doesn't feel hopelessly overdone. I will admit the band does manage to get some solid momentum on the closing track 'Back To The Beginning Again', and there's an interesting guitar tone choice on 'Ba55', but outside of that, it's a pop rock sound that wouldn't feel out of place on a modern Backstreet Boys or One Direction album (yes, I'm serious about that) - and yet, somehow less memorable.

Then we have the vocals, and while I'm happy to see Jon Foreman move away from trying to sound tough, I can't say after eight albums I'm impressed with him. He reminds me a fair bit of Daughtry, in that he has energy and exuberance and earnestness, but not a lot of emotional range. And while he does work well with the backing chorus, the occasional bits of autotune feel like like they were added in order to make this record sound more processed and generic.

Granted, none of that is helped by the lyrics, which might just be some of the most thin and interchangeable I've ever heard. I'll come out and say that Switchfoot have never been great songwriters outside of basic technical proficiency (I mean, they built a whole song around the line 'I want it all or nothing at all' - which wasn't smooth when O-Town did it), but they used to try harder than this, a selection of generational inspiration tripe that I feel I've heard time and time again from dozens of artists. I made the 30 Seconds To Mars comparison earlier and it feels relevant here because Switchfoot is trying to inspire passion and energy in its listeners - but I have no clear feel of the stakes or that there's any real detail in the struggles Switchfoot is trying to describe. They talk about lost generations and rising up and 'love alone is worth the fight' - and sure, such arch concepts can be powerful with the right delivery, but Switchfoot just doesn't have the power or flair to make them stand out. For an example, let's take the song 'Say It Like You Mean It', where they feel like they've lost their ability to inspire us and they want us to speak up and do something, not just say it - but to do or say what? It's not rooted in anything, so the uplifting, inspiring lyrics feel weightless.

Now some would say it's rooted in Switchfoot's faith and that we should all recognize that they're talking about God - but here's the thing, Switchfoot aren't subtle songwriters and they make it pretty evident when they're talking about the guy upstairs in their music. And to that end, this is probably their least nominally religious album to date, at least when it comes to the lyrics. Sure, songs like 'Ba55' and 'The World You Want' seem at first to be referring to God, but in the latter song, the 'you' in question appears to be a girl and then the bridge references all manner of things like what you say, how you say, who you love, how you love, all your science, all your hatred, all your wars, all them are 'your religion'. Okay, metaphor showing how all of these things are incredibly important to this girl-in-question's life (or to God, it does work in this context), but it's a sloppy metaphor and it still feels maddeningly unspecific with lines like 'Every day that you're alive / you change the world'. On a very basic level, that's just above affirming that breathing means you're alive - which is very much along the lines of a later track on the album 'Let It Out', which is a song about exhaling one's fear and insecurities away. Yes, I'm serious.

Look, the issue here isn't the intent but the execution: when these lyrics are so basic and broad and the instrumentation is so bland and recycled and devoid of interesting melodies, there's no dramatic force behind the music for me. After eight albums, I get Switchfoot's appeal - they're the unthreatening, lighter version of modern rock that's passable for a Christian audience and just well-produced enough to avoid the Christian rock stigma. And on that standard, I didn't expect to be moved or impressed, but previous Switchfoot albums at least got me to feel something! With Fading West, I don't feel much of anything because the album just had no impact with me. It wasn't particularly good, but it wasn't objectively bad either. By my standards of Switchfoot, I didn't like it as much as Hello Hurricane or Oh! Gravity, but it's not their worst album either. So while I'm giving this album a 5/10, I'm only going to recommend it if you're a big fan of Switchfoot - and even then, it's not their best. Everyone else... look, it might be the doldrums of January, but that most recent album of Queens of the Stone Age still exists, and I'm sure Dave Grohl's got something coming for this year. 2014 just started, it's bound to get better soon.


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  2. You remind me of Anton Ego.