Sound — 7
Switchfoot began as an alternative trio in the mid 1990s as Chin Up, consisting of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jon Foreman, brother Tim Foreman on bass, and drummer Chad Butler. Initially marketed toward a Christian contemporary audience and achieving only slight notice with their first three releases, the band garnered most attention with the releases of 2000's Grammy-nominated "Learning To Breathe" and (often painfully) prominent presence of the band's music in the 2002 film A Walk To Remember. Joined by John Fields, Switchfoot met Charlie Peacock, and an expired contract with their record label, Switchfoot recorded the follow-up to 2000's gold-certified effort. Recording consisted mostly of tracks the band was already performing live and was reportedly completed in a matter of weeks, but after the band signed with Columbia Records, the release was delayed for further mixing. 2003 finally saw "The Beautiful Letdown". The record is certainly no letdown, but it's all kinds of beautiful. For a band firmly rooted in a CCM label since 1996, Switchfoot grew immensely between albums. Rather than some of the mess on "Learning To Breathe", the band sounds like a well-oiled machine, with stronger melodies and great musical curves. The addition of keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas lends itself to a fuller sound, Tim Foreman is powerful on bass guitar, and Butler has particular stylistic variations that sculpt certain tracks entirely. Guitars are bigger and have a greater rock sensibility than previous records (some of which might briefly spotlight a riff or two "Chem 6A", "Incomplete", and "Company Car" from the first two releases contained fifty odd percent of the guitar work in Switchfoot's entire discography. With "The Beautiful Letdown", Switchfoot has confidently stepped over the alternative line into post-grunge territory. Though many tracks ("Meant To Live", "Ammunition", "Adding To The Noise") are suited more to the airwaves than Switchfoot's modest previous work, they retain much of the charm of earlier releases. "More Than Fine" could be the younger brother to 1999's "New Way To Be Human", with alternative rock influence in the vein of R.E.M. and Dave Matthews Band. Similarly, "Redemption" is only as tortured as anything from "Learning To Breathe", "Gone" is pop-rock at its silliest, and "Twenty-Four"'s acoustic melancholy could well be a more realized "Learning To Breathe". None of the record is held back by the band's history, and most nods to it have the dial turned up at least two or three notches (often more). "Dare You To Move" is, as it happens, a cut from "Learning To Breathe" re-imagined and truly, beautifully recreated. However, where such close comparisons can be made to other alternative rock acts, "This Is Your Life" and "The Beautiful Letdown" have a slight U2 feel. As in the case of the others, these allusions don't detract, but when paid close attention do closely reflect the source material. Electronic elements are present, especially in "This Is Your Life" and "The Beautiful Letdown". Both are primarily bass-driven, though the former has a chilling skeleton of electronic drums as well as a brooding bass line. "Gone" has a few such elements thrown in, those most are just that thrown in. Though the electronic style certainly compliments "This Is Your Life" and the titular cut, it cripples "Gone" and "Adding To The Noise". "Gone" is, like, so totally rockin' and radical, dude, that it becomes extremely difficult to take seriously. The subject matter is understandable enough, but set to the ridiculously mixed instrumental, the entire thing takes a bullet that undermines the record's entire second half. "Adding To The Noise" is less electronic than a product of the radio-friendly pop-rock age, un-ironically playing the very music it thumbs its nose at. In such close proximity (and obtrusively sandwiching the beautiful "On Fire"), the tracks sound just plain stupid and come off as immature. Then there's the post-grunge element. Switchfoot sure can rock, it seems, with "Meant To Live" opening the album with a sucker punch and a great opening riff. Similarly, "Dare You To Move" benefits greatly from Switchfoot's grittier side, even if the song itself is anything but. The song is a true gem with a scarily gorgeous chorus. "Ammunition" is a straight-up rock tune with just a hint of the Stones. On the opposite end, "On Fire" is a stunning piano ballad and "Twenty-Four" is the beautiful sunset of finales. Not a note is out of place in either case. There wasn't a smarter direction for Switchfoot to have gone with their mainstream debut, and though this is certainly a wonder for sales five times as many units as "Learning To Breathe" it sometimes hurts the record. "Gone" is a particularly awkward moment and "Adding To The Noise" is just too safe. Perhaps it is best to thank the pains the band does go through to stretch out, but it's hard to ignore the sequence at the second half of the record: the silly "Gone", the beautiful "On Fire", the goofy "Adding To The Noise", and then the gorgeous "Twenty-Four". Admittedly, "Redemption" marks a downward curve for the record, alternating the band's best with some of its weakest. Altogether, "The Beautiful Letdown" does introduce Switchfoot to broader horizons, and at the very least "Dare You To Move" alone is worth the cost of admission.
Lyrics — 7
Switchfoot's secret weapon is Jon Foreman. With lyrical craftsmanship as in-tune with the emotive psyche of his audience as Dylan, he possesses the ability to sell the band at its weakest. Even "Gone" (featuring a tip of the hat to Bono himself) is better written by him than anyone else. Even coming from the intimate lo-fi indie Switchfoot, Foreman evolves so quickly into rock stardom that it's difficult to believe he doesn't simply see it as another style. "Meant To Live" is Switchfoot at its most bitter, and Foreman reinforces the track almost more than the music itself. "Maybe we've been living with our eyes half open", he ponders, "...have we lost ourselves?" In like fashion, "The Beautiful Letdown" tackles some inherently heavy topics, whether they expand upon Foreman's ever-searching spirituality or desire for self-improvement. "More Than Fine" is reaching past the hilltop: "When I wake in the morning/I want to blow into pieces/I want more than just okay". Foreman frequently represents the struggle and the determination to see it through, as the sweeping title track especially emphasizes. It's all somewhat broad, but seldom disjointed. Until the second half. As in the case of the music, beginning with "Redemption", the record begins to feel slightly uneasy. This isn't particularly evident until "Gone", and the blame falls far from Foreman, but the thematic elements tend to shift around. "Redemption" and "The Beautiful Letdown" are both very vulnerable and fallen, though it seems bizarre that a track that builds from discomfort to hope ("Redemption") is followed by an introverted war cry. Did the apparent build in momentum go by unnoticed by Foreman? More than likely, it comes down to these being re-purposed live tracks. "Gone" is about materialism and breakdown in communication, but is again so bizarrely poppy and uplifting that it becomes hard to decide whether the record's on an upward swing or not. "Adding To The Noise" boasts essentially the same message, though focusing more on the relationship between popular media and communication. It's bizarre, coming from a song that sounds like it belongs on such airwaves (to the song's credit, Foreman does suggest "If we're adding to the noise/Turn off this song"). Considering its similarity to "Gone" and each song being placed after an extremely moving piece, the second half is by then off rails entirely. "Twenty-Four", summarized with "Life was not what I thought it was/Twenty-four hours ago", is a moving closer, but intruded upon a bit by the previously careening collection of imagery. As a vocalist, Foreman fills shoes as big as the tracks demand and as vulnerable as his lyrical material suggests. "Meant To Live" sees him as a bombast rock star, "Dare You To Move" is more moving and less pretentious than evident inspiration Bono, and "Twenty-Four" is equally quiet and powerful. "Ammunition" throws in an element newer than any of these: screaming. All of these in unison is a perfect resume for future work by Foreman, though he does get a bit throaty in "On Fire". He has two portions that are equal part song and spoken-word, one in "The Beautiful Letdown" and another at the end of "Gone". Even amidst the weaknesses of the latter, his performance is further layered. Put simply, Foreman is Switchfoot's frontman, which so often seems a rarity in a genre more and more being flooded with faceless leaders.
Overall Impression — 6
With "The Beautiful Letdown", Switchfoot at last found the audience beyond their CCM label, and crafted some truly notable pieces particularly the reworked "Dare You To Move", which receives airplay on secular channels ten years after its release. Greater production value allowed for greater ambiance and solidified the record's sonic identity (a weakness of "Learning To Breathe"). It is extremely evident by the second half that either Columbia had a hand in reworking the tracks or that the band was just really into the MTV age, and this tends to detract from the overall thematic cohesiveness of the record. However, the songs on their own are as mature, clever, and grand as anything the band has released before. Whatever else "The Beautiful Letdown" made Switchfoot, it must certainly have made them proud.