Sound — 7
After Switchfoot's renewed success found in 2009's "Hello Hurricane", the expected followup, which fans have known about since that time, has been in question. Not only has its potential been under scrutiny, but its very existence has gone from single album to double album to potential live recording, and so on. From the debut "Legend Of Chin" to "Hurricane", the band has covered a plethora of sound. What could they possibly do to rekindle interest? These are the same questions asked after 2006 saw "Oh! Gravity". With each release, the band has at least re-imagined, if not entirely re-invented, their sonic identity. The transition from "Learning To Breathe" to "The Beautiful Letdown" was notable, as was that from "Nothing Is Sound" to "Oh! Gravity". This trick only works so many times; could it save them once more? I personally have been very satisfied with the majority of Switchfoot's openers, from "Meant To Live" to "Needle And Haystack Life". As so few artists do, they seem to grasp the concept of drawing an audience into an album with a good opener. For "Vice Verses" (2011), this introduction is called "Afterlife". This was a song well-known to fans of Switchfoot's live act, and has been part of their set for the past few months. It begins with a single chord, very similar to "Needle And Haystack Life", though notably darker. From the first note, then, there is a proposed relationship between this and the last release. Both "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" open with the same ship, albeit in different fashion; thus, as the band has stated, "Vice Verses" is the brooding sequel to "Hello Hurricane". This in particular excited me. After all, my preferred recording by the band is arguably the darkest of all, 2005's "Nothing Is Sound". Combining the thrills of 2009's release with the contemplation of 2005's sounds like a pretty sweet deal. However, after a grinding opener, "The Original" begins. This track has been compared to "Bullet Soul", another poppy guitar-driven tune from the previous release. This is more than fair; I saw many similarities. It's a good enough song on its own, but isn't anything fantastic. Not to mention that it furthers the similarities with "Hello Hurricane", which also followed its opener up with a guitar-driven wannabe single. This is another song known to attendees of the live shows, as is the following. "The War Inside" was one of my personal favorites in a live setting, and, as in the case of "Afterlife", I was a bit afraid of it losing its power in the studio setting. Luckily, most of the punch is intact in each case. It also proudly announces the arrival of some new elements; something slightly more industrial than what we're used to from the band. This works perfectly with the darkness of the record. "Restless" is another U2-ish emotional track, and it does its musical job well enough, though the lyrics are the real gem. Next is the first real letdown of the album, "Blinding Light". It's a lot of nonsense about the system mixed with a few interesting elements and an only somewhat-engaging chorus. Don't get too excited; the next one will throw established fans for a loop. "Selling The News" opens with a short drumroll before singer Jon Foreman begins to rap. Granted, it's a rap he owns quite well. He isn't trying to be any particular rapper, and actually transitions very nicely into the chorus. Irritatingly, a few moments are just short of interesting. It's more talk about how evil the system is and all the same stuff we've been hearing for ages, even from Switchfoot. The same old message. Yes, it's an important one, but is it necessary? I will note that the bridge is actually quite powerful. We're taken out of political blubbering for one of the most beautiful tracks the band has ever released. Somewhat Keane-ish, somewhat along the lines of "The Beautiful Letdown", "Thrive" is as close to perfect as Switchfoot gets on this record. This track embodies everything the band promised about an "open" feeling, bass-driven tracks, and everything of that sort. It's quite lovely. The current single is "Dark Horses", which brings in the second half of the album with great urgency. But where it is powerful, it is also re-used. Haven't we heard this song before? "The Sound?" as in the case of "The Original", for as enjoyable as it may be, it feels a bit too familiar. Heavy guitar riff, raucous chorus, and so forth. "Souvenirs" is another somewhat weak track. Nostalgia, childhood love (of whatever kind), and all that. Perhaps a bit of looking back on the band itself. With "Rise Above It", the irritating political noise is finally over. As in the case of "Blinding Light" and "Selling The News", it addresses kids directly. Get a new gig, guys. Rise above it, etc. "Thrive" isn't the only emotional high point of the record, of course. Somewhat reminiscent of "Oh! Gravity"'s "Let Your Love Be Strong", "Vice Verses" is primarily Jon and a guitar. Very atmospheric, very lyrically-driven and melodic, it's hard to beat an album closer like that. Of course, that doesn't mean they tried; on its heels is the triumphant "Where I Belong", the band's longest-running track to date. It does bring to mind my final complaint of the album's structure. Firstly, it's a bit similar to "Red Eyes" (the closer from "Hello Hurricane") in principle, but more importantly, its ending mirrors that of said track! As "Red Eyes" repeats the chorus from the album opener, so "Where I Belong" has a reprise from the second verse of "Afterlife". It sounds fantastic, but we've heard it done before. That phrase, actually, about sums up what I feel where this record is concerned. I'm going to give the sound, structure, etc, a 7/10. I was terrified of "Selling The News" at first, but it's found its place. There are still far too many weak tracks, repeated tracks, political tracks, etc. Supposedly, it was supposed to bring the energy of the live act to the studio, but I doubt many of the less involved fans care or will notice. The deluxe version comes with a demo of "Dark Horses", which is horrendous, and a full live performance of "Hello Hurricane", which is actually very well-done.
Lyrics — 8
One area in which Switchfoot nearly always succeeds is the lyrical department. This is especially evident in "Restless", "Thrive", and "Vice Verses". Few lyricists of the day act as a better arbiter between music and audience than Foreman. He also does an excellent job of rousing the goosebumps during the louder tracks, both in writing and singing. I did notice an absence of screams in the majority of the record, which "Hello Hurricane" especially had sported in, quite literally, every other song. Here, it is only in "Afterlife", "The War Inside", and "Dark Horses", though there are a few "yeah"s here and there. The only real complaints I have are, as usual, the more preachy bits. "Every day, I choose my faith", "Age don't matter like race don't matter like place don't matter" and the like fall flat. No, this isn't a particularly preachy record, but lines of that sort have the potential to rip a fan right out of the listening experience.
Overall Impression — 7
Switchfoot delivered mostly what was expected. It modeled after "Hello Hurricane" with darker spots here and there, "Selling The News" was as uncomfortable as expected, "Where I Belong" copied "Red Eyes" to the letter, and so forth. Unlike their previous releases, however, this album has - gasp! - fillers. "Blinding Light" is a filler. "Rise Above It" is a filler. "The Original" is most definitely a filler. Apart from these, the record is entirely bearable. Some of it even ranks as the band's best work. Really, though, I would have been interested in hearing material akin to "The War Inside", "Thrive", "Vice Verses", and so. For as heavily as the open-space, bass-driven aspect was advertised, it was delivered only in small helpings. If they went all-out with "Selling The News", why not do so with the other tracks? Therein lies my problem with songs like that - they are isolated incidents. If experimentation is the idea, why not go all-out? For all its bells and whistles, this album is still easily identifiable as a sequel to "Hello Hurricane". As far as I'm concerned, the only real experimentation the band has ever partaken in was that in "Nothing Is Sound". It was a road album, yet it sounds nothing like 2003's "The Beautiful Letdown". "Meant To Live" is nothing like "Lonely Nation", "Stars" isn't to be found before 2005, "Daisy" is utterly different from "Twenty-Four", and so on. I can't even draw this comparison between "Oh! Gravity" and "Hello Hurricane", as they are from entirely separate "eras" for the band. It's a given that they're radically different. "Vice Verses" is not a bad album. If it had come two years earlier, I'd be wondering why in the world "this new album, 'Hello Hurricane', is so much like it". There are some shining moments, but there were some shining moments in "Oh! Gravity" and "Learning To Breathe" as well, which very well may rank as Switchfoot's least-engaging releases. Its only saving graces are the off tracks that actually fulfill the hype, and the more guitar-driven or else anthemic pieces. This still leaves "The Original", "Blinding Light", "Selling The News", "Souvenirs", and "Rise Above It" behind. For those counting, that's one song short of being half the record, and I'm still debating whether "Dark Horses" should fall into that category or not.