Sound — 6
After a platinum hit and a stellar followup, Switchfoot stumbled upon the creation of their sixth record with a few songs originally intended for an EP. Finding enough material for a full release, the band packaged the new tracks together in 2006's "Oh! Gravity." Production was handled by John Fields from "Nothing Is Sound", Tim Palmer (The Cure, Porcupine Tree's "In Absentia"), and Steve Lillywhite, who had previously worked on the scaled-down version of arena superstars U2 on "War". Similarly, Switchfoot pursued a sound less dramatic than their previous "Nothing Is Sound", released a year earlier. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Jon Foreman claimed an attempt to balance Switchfoot's "spit and polish" sound, with "Oh! Gravity." having "more spit". Perhaps the record isn't as bombast as "Nothing Is Sound", but it is certainly no less polish. The opening titular track boasts a riff that might have been deemed raw, had it not been so cleanly implemented. Granted, the production is very fun and very Switchfoot, but the only thing scaled-back about it is the directness with which the band's previous albums so proudly opened. "Oh! Gravity." is a record bursting with sound from all over the sonic plane, though most of it is just plain loud in some way or another. Guitars are relied upon even more since Drew Shirley's induction, and while the record is certainly no worse off, it isn't necessarily helped. Often, the big rock tracks border on excessive, often overshadowing the band's typically profound imagery. The opener itself is a raucous rock tune lead in full force by Foreman and friends, and "American Dream" essentially continues its sound beat for beat. "Dirty Second Hands" and "Faust, Midas, And Myself" are stompers, with the former being especially dark though nowhere near "Nothing Is Sound" at its brightest. There are a couple of typical Switchfoot cuts here, namely "Awakening" and "Head Over Heels (In This Life)". Both are powerful and slightly U2-ish melodically, though "Head Over Heels" is certainly the more powerful. "Circles" and "Yesterdays" are mercifully offbeat, "Amateur Lovers" and "Burn Out Bright" serve as more hard-hitting rockers, though "Let Your Love Be Strong" is a placeholder for a rather predictable ending. "Oh! Gravity." is arguably Switchfoot's first rock album, with less emphasis than usual on post-grunge elements and more on pop-rock. The album does very little work convincing its audience of this, and tracks like "Amateur Lovers" (complete with cowbell) are clear indicators of how little it needs to. Just as before, the band handles its style with ease and power. However, there are a few potholes along the way. More than any release, with the possible exception of 2000's "Learning To Breathe", "Oh! Gravity." is terribly inconsistent. In the case of "New Way To Be Human" and "Nothing Is Sound" especially, there was a clear goal and a traceable linearity. The tracks made sense together, and even complimented one another. "Oh! Gravity." sure likes its own music, but there's so much going on from song to song that it becomes difficult to distinguish the album from its parts. "American Dream" is stuffy and somewhat jaded, "Dirty Second Hands" is dark and brooding, "Awakening" is spiritual and uplifting, "Circles" broods some more, "Amateur Lovers" is sarcastic and charismatic, and "Let Your Love Be Strong" feels entirely thrown together with a stab at solemnity. Ironically, the sound can be fully summarized in a vocal bit at the end of "Amateur Lovers": "We can't take anymore takes... Yeah, it's broken". Apparently something broke during the recording of that take what else broke in production? The songs themselves are certainly powerful enough for what they attempt to achieve: the rock tracks go all-out with less of the oomph but more punch than "Nothing Is Sound", and though they certainly feel more like the pause button than a natural slow-down, the mellow tracks are nice. The glaring exceptions are "4:12" and "Let Your Love Be Strong". When the album winds down, it winds down quickly, with "Burn Out Bright" being a high point for Foreman but a low for the record. After that, it's all downhill, ending in the thoroughly un-spectacular acoustic piece. After "Twenty-Four" and "Daisy", it really is a feeble way to close an album already on the chopping block. Its advantage is in its initial intimacy, but this seems slightly lost in the build to the chorus and second verse, which feature instrumentation that falls right back into the pop of the rest of the record. It ends up sounding rather silly. "Oh! Gravity." has some real musical high points, and really does feature great performances from even bassist Tim Foreman, who, with the help of wonderful mixing, escaped the "missing bass" effect after his riffs ended on "The Beautiful Letdown". The instrumentation is certainly a bonus, with "Amateur Lovers" and "Dirty Second Hands" feeling especially finished. However, the tracks that do feel finished don't at all belong on the same record with those that don't ("Burn Out Bright" and "Let Your Love Be Strong"), and the jumble of tracks is a bullet in the poor record. Even worse, much of the music is so contrived that it would be difficult re-purposing it for live performances. Segmented, the album is first a straightforward pop-rock thrash (the opener to "Awakening"), then an experimental post-grunge record ("Circles" to "Yesterdays"), then an uneven combination of the two. The less interesting tracks, while not entirely filler, throw off the balance of the record entirely. If more than a year had been taken between "Nothing Is Sound" and this release, perhaps the band might have found something a bit more realized and a lot more satisfying.
Lyrics — 5
Oh, but even if the music is a letdown, surely Jon Foreman will still deliver in the lyrical department! Well, no. Foreman certainly isn't capable of writing a bad song, but the best was saved for his solo efforts, which all released soon after "Oh! Gravity." The material that did end up on Switchfoot's drawing board is, in short, impersonal. Shockingly so, when compared to his solo work and previous releases with the band. Some are general rants against detestable practices in American society ("Oh! Gravity.", "American Dream", "Dirty Second Hands", "Awakening", "Circles", "Amateur Lovers", "Let Your Love Be Strong"), and some are... To be honest, hard to remember. After the ruthless onslaught of commentary on the record's first half, it's difficult to pay much attention without wandering to either the self-improving "The Beautiful Letdown" or melancholy "Nothing Is Sound", both of which addressed the same subjects in one or two tracks on a more personal level. "Oh! Gravity."'s driving theme is essentially the degradation of American society. Foreman himself would have much more to say, and would say it much more eloquently, but for the uninitiated listener, that's what it boils down to. Here's a sample from each of the opening six tracks: "The fallout/The fallout/You found out the hype won't get you through"; "This ain't my American dream/I wanna live and die for bigger things"; "In the land of the free/And the home of the remedy/The old clock is a thief/With dirty second hands"; "Face-down with the LA curbside endings/And the ones and zeroes/Downtown was a perfect place to hide"; "Another day/Another sunrise/Another factory call"; "We don't know what we're doing/We do it again/We're just amateur lovers/With amateur friends". Starting to see a theme here? A bit too much, perhaps. Where "Nothing Is Sound" was very personal and explorative, "Oh! Gravity." presumes to know the problem, the solution, and the outcome thereof. Every song is about some sort of disillusionment with American culture in particular, entirely disabling the band's hands-on lyrical imagery of earlier releases. It's gritty, it's intense, and it's loud, but is there a point? It's certainly hard to determine when the band is asking questions for its audience, and seldom does the same enticing analysis featured all over "Nothing Is Sound" show up. The self rarely comes into play, and the exceptions feel somewhat off-beat: "Faust, Midas, And Myself" is a great piece with some of the best lyrical work, but even as it asks "What direction?", one wonders the same thing about the song's placement. It's just as disenchanted as every other cut here; what distinguishes it from any of those? Furthermore, the romance of Switchfoot is entirely gone. "Yesterdays" is a nice resting moment, with very specific themes of loss that will certainly resonate, but fall back on the incredibly honest Nirvana-ish lyricism that Foreman has boasted dating as far back as "Legend Of Chin", but which had been missing for the entirety of "Oh! Gravity." As in the case of other standout tracks, it would be more appropriate to say that it *sticks* out. "Head Over Heels" is as heart-swollen as Switchfoot gets, with a sudden decision to revert back to "Nothing Is Sound"'s skyscraper stomp. Compared to the rest of the record's complacent dribble, such honesty feels almost offensively left-field. It would be remiss of one to assert that everything good sounds out of place more accurately, everything finished feels out of place. "Oh! Gravity." robs Foreman of his usual profundity in favor of a somewhat typical tirade against corporate America. He hints in places at the root of the problem the individual but, unlike in "Nothing Is Sound", shies from wondering what is at the root of the individual. Why is there a "fracture... In the backseat of a parked car/By the liquor store"? "Why can't we seem to keep it together?" is a great question to pose, but who are "we" in the first place and what's the problem? "Let Your Love Be Strong" implies emptiness more in tone than wording, and "Awakening" is bizarrely redeeming for the fourth track on a record about "Amateur Lovers" and the death of the "American Dream". It all ends up sounding kind of throwaway and kind of corny. Perhaps it isn't even that complicated; perhaps sometimes, even the masters just strike out.
Overall Impression — 5
The record resulting from those EP sessions is all over "American Dream": "If success is equated with excess/The ambition for excess wrecks us". That single lyric is at the core of the record and its composition, whether it be the actual message about excess or Switchfoot's own bland pop-rock flair. As the same cut states, "It doesn't feel like freedom". Even if Switchfoot was making a record for "the man", as later interviews suggest, the attempts to break from formula ultimately feel awkward. Considering the formula's own weaknesses, it's a real tragedy "Oh! Gravity." had to try so hard just to get a word in. It ends up sounding half skewed and half radio-ready safe. "Oh! Gravity." is a pleasant journey for Switchfoot, which is a strength and a weakness. On one hand, "pleasant" is hardly a risque way to put it, and risque can make or break a rock record. On the other, at least it isn't unpleasant. Anyone looking for a few powerful tunes from one of the more deep-thinking acts in rock are going to enjoy the release, though a second look may raise questions. It's difficult to absolutely love this record, but it sure is hard to hate a band with as much spirit as Switchfoot. At the very least, "Oh! Gravity." puts a cap on a good opening decade for the band, after which independence from their label and freedom to create offers limitless opportunity.