Sound — 8
San Diego's Switchfoot began as a modest rock/pop group in the mid-nineties, identifying with but never fully integrating into the Christian contemporary music movement. Their early releases dealt with a mixture of spiritual and personal themes, from 1996's "Legend Of Chin" and a few silly debacles with girls to 1999's feel-good but melancholy "New Way To Be Human" and 2000's ever-searching "Learning To Breathe". In 2003, the band overwent a sonic remodel and found a platinum hit with "The Beautiful Letdown". Though a definite product of the MTV age, it reached levels of power and profundity few artists even (especially?) in the CCM community have ever hit. The album's titanic single "Dare You To Move" receives considerable airplay a decade later. Though some in the Christian community clung to Switchfoot as the band that might finally dignify the genre to mainstream audiences, the band still communicated with imagery and intimated at a striking emotional depth something many artists of faith have struggled to do without preaching. If intending to front a religious band at all, singer/lyricist Jon Foreman has relied more heavily on principle than ritual. "The Beautiful Letdown" certainly sounded secular for its time, and its success rocketed Switchfoot beyond the staple of CCM. The follow-up to Switchfoot's flagship release, 2005's "Nothing Is Sound", is the product of extensive touring and exploration for the band. Much of the record's lyrical content deals with experiences written very much from the heart: "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine"'s alludes to struggling African communities and "Happy Is A Yuppie Word" is Foreman's interpretation of a Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan. The musical composition follows suit, bringing the post-grunge of "The Beautiful Letdown" to greater heights and sculpting a bigger and darker sound. From the outset, the band is bitter, desperate, and evidently "breaking up inside." The introduction of guitarist Drew Shirley expands "Letdown"'s great riffs and melodic guitar work. However, it leaves much less room for bassist Tim Foreman, who led one of "The Beautiful Letdown"'s strongest cuts, "This Is Your Life". It's a bit disappointing to see bass-driven tracks dropped, though the instrument itself is still mixed very well. "Lonely Nation", quite opposite to "Letdown"'s triumphant opening, is indeed as lonely as anything Switchfoot has ever released. The guitars sound massive, Chad Butler is a powerhouse on the drums, and Tim Foreman rumbles on bass guitar. The chorus is unbelievably loud, and acts as a perfect precursor for the riff on "Stars", one of the album's lead singles. Throughout a fantastic opening run, the heavy reliance on guitar is part of what made bands like Nirvana resonate. Switchfoot achieves this to a stellar degree, blasting through the p-ssed-off "Politicians" and bursting into the only-too-catchy chorus of "Easier Than Love". Lessons learned from "Letdown" are certainly carried into "Sound", but rather than being used to correct any previous mistakes (here's to you, "Gone"), they're implemented into a sound completely new to the band. Softer moments are just as deeply moving as the crunch of the guitars, with "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine" exhibiting a world-weary Switchfoot at its most vulnerable, but most motivated. "The Blues" is a dreary and condescending stomp with the most dynamic sound of any song the band had created leading up to it. "Golden" is poppy but sensitive, taking the most nods from "The Beautiful Letdown" of any track here. Perhaps the two most striking tracks are "The Fatal Wound" and "Daisy". Both are near the end of the album, with "Daisy" acting as a closer and "The Fatal Wound" coming two tracks earlier. Both are primarily driven by the acoustic guitar. "Wound" is Switchfoot's darkest track to date, with seeping electronic moments and ominous whispering behind Foreman's subtly manipulated vocals. The song, especially considering its subject matter, is tempestuously black. "Daisy" is the balls-out emotional staple of the record, outstripping even the inspiring "Sunshine" and "Lonely Nation" with a build from quiet acoustic guitar to a rousing explosion of a coda. Where "Twenty-Four" flowed on the last record, "Daisy" soars. For the leaps and bounds Switchfoot made in its creation, "Nothing Is Sound" isn't without its weaknesses. While "We Are One Tonight" is a fun piece of rock/pop, there isn't much to it musically especially after "The Fatal Wound". Though not nearly as cheesy as "Gone" from the last record, it serves the same radio-friendly purpose. At other times, however, Switchfoot isn't quite friendly enough "Golden" is muddled in places and "The Setting Sun" drags the sound of "The Blues" out into a chipper bounce. Both are great tunes, and "The Setting Sun" has a great riff and beautiful instrumentation, but in the context of the record they do seem a bit slow. For the material it deals with, "Nothing Is Sound" seems to supply these tracks as pit stops to anyone wanting a break from the despair. Neither really detract from the overall experience, but neither add much other than more goodness to the band's repertoire. "The Beautiful Letdown" set an unprecedented standard for Switchfoot, and yet "Nothing Is Sound" dismisses it as though they've been writing the record for years. The sound is bigger, more complex, and markedly more interesting. The record knows when to be big, when to be intimate, when to be claustrophobic, when to be threatening, and even when to break. It has a linearity and a completeness that no release before it could boast. "Lonely Nation" and "Daisy" perfectly bookend a slew of Switchfoot at their best, and one could hardly have hoped for a better follow-up to an impressive breakthrough.
Lyrics — 9
The sound isn't the only dramatic change Switchfoot made for "Nothing Is Sound"; Jon Foreman steps up in the lyrical department with nary a hiccup. "Lonely Nation" is... well, lonely, and introduces a much more engaging message than "The Beautiful Letdown"'s scattered material. "Nothing Is Sound", though far from a concept album, has purpose and thematic definition. Ironically, this album is the real "beautiful letdown", clarifying the previous album's title track and its statement about "the drop-outs, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools". Where "The Beautiful Letdown" dealt with broad ideas and positive outcomes, "Nothing Is Sound" is down in the dirt with the scum of the earth. Foreman's philosophy has an intriguing and fundamentally dark circle. "Stars" deals with blame, self-pity, self-doubt, and self-discovery simultaneously. "Happy Is A Yuppie Word" and "Politicians" are more outward in scope, but generally come back to the same problem: the self. They start at the symptoms ("Everything fails/Everything runs its course") and work steadily inward ("Everyone buys/Everyone's got a price"). Foreman's profound understanding of the human heart is most apparent in the album's airier tracks, especially "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine". Humanity is boiled down to "We are crooked souls trying to stay up straight/Dry our eyes in the pouring rain where/The shadow proves the sunshine" yet concludes with breathtaking strokes coupled with wonderful musical movements of hope: "Two scared little runaways/Hold fast to the brink of daylight where/The shadow proves the sunshine". Similarly, "Happy Is A Yuppie Word", even in observing the "time and a place/For all of this love and war", concludes ultimately that "nothing is sound". The master stroke of "Nothing Is Sound", even beyond Foreman's remarkable dissection of the human struggle, is the move into more mature subject matter. On one hand, this can be dismissed as a nice way to have broken from the stereotype of Christian or otherwise religious lyricism. At second glance, however, the record opens in dozens of directions previously glazed over. Already established is Foreman's ability to deal with internal battles of the human conscience, but when darker themes such as suicide, sin, and sex are thrown into the mix, he unwittingly elevates to the same level as conceptual masterminds such as Roger "WWII" Waters. "Easier Than Love" addresses the materialistic nature of sex in pop culture, but also recognizes the inner desire for love being at the root of "the monster we've become". He even goes as far as a bout with the devil in "The Fatal Wound", which is full of hints at satanic imagery without ever presenting the character as anything but something of a gunslinging rogue much like some of the best depictions of Lucifer himself, he advertises himself as a solution, rather than the problem. It's the gray area few dare venture, especially in the market Switchfoot had fashioned itself for. Hints are made at spirituality, though they are on such a marvelously human level that they put the best of Kutless and Jeremy Camp to shame. Just like depression, humiliation, greed, lust, and a multitude of other subjects, Foreman addresses spirituality as just another (albeit important) aspect of the human existence. No conclusions are made, but every question is asked. Foreman comes off as less an orthodox Christian in the 21st century and more a 21st century fan of the man Jesus Christ and, for that matter, any figure promoting the same values. Lines like "Oh, Lord, why did you forsake me/Please, Lord, don't be far away" are very human cries for help, rather than ritualistic prayers. Most importantly, Foreman is simply relatable, and presents spirituality as a winding road rather than a definitive path. "The Blues" states it most bluntly with a touching nod to the religious imagery of the hand of God and Kingdom Come: "Is this the finger/Or just another fist? /Is this the kingdom/Or just a hit and miss?" There is no preaching. There isn't even suggestive ushering to the church or the Bible or any such debate. He simply asks the questions with the audience. Vocally, Foreman's also stepped up. In the same vein as Bono, he possesses a powerful baritone range with brilliant performances especially in "The Blues", "Daisy", and "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine". There are few weak moments (all on tracks already outed as less interesting than the others), but at every moment his heart and soul are melted and poured into every note. As a great leaf taken from the last record's cut, "Ammunition", Foreman has some very powerful moments with the introduction of screaming most effective in "Lonely Nation" and "Daisy". As in the case of every previous release, he is personable in the intimate moments and soulful on the louder cuts.
Overall Impression — 8
Either Drew Shirley or Jon Foreman is the best thing ever to happen to Switchfoot take your pick. "Nothing Is Sound" was sculpted by the phenomenal performances from each of them as well as their band mates. The heavier sound lends itself well to the darker themes, and exploration on sonic and lyrical terms provides Switchfoot with a dynamic soap box. It comes as a bit of a shock that most of the material was composed by the band while on the road, though "The Setting Sun" certainly has a buddy road-trip feel to it. It was time well spent, and the result is Switchfoot's best up to its own creation. Nothing from "The Beautiful Letdown" is forgotten, but risks and adventures never before possible for the band are trudged through with a grim outlook and amplifiers that sound stories tall. Not only a musical thrill, "Nothing Is Sound" is a thematic masterwork. Some of the imagery is so horrifically dark, yet what few conclusions Switchfoot draws defies (or defines?) the human condition in a bright ray of hope. Likewise, the record itself opens Switchfoot to unlimited possibilities. If shallower cuts such as "We Are One Tonight" (which really is rather dull) can be avoided, the band may yet sculpt an even bigger hit.