Switchfoot’s mission statement, for as long as I can remember, has been to write music that incorporates themes from their Christian background without keeping it so inside that it ostracizes the secular audience. Their 2011 effort Vice Verses demonstrated this with aplomb as lead singer and primary songwriter Jon Foreman struggled with issues of identity, mortality, and faith.
Fading West, the 2014 follow-up to Vice Verses, seems at first listen to deal with decidedly less weighty themes, and to a certain degree, that’s true. Designed in part as a soundtrack to their tour film/documentary of the same name, songs like the single “Who We Are” and “Let It Out” sound right at home in the California surf culture that threads its way through Switchfoot’s entire catalog (and the band name itself). But the overall lighter tone doesn’t equate to a lack of depth by any means.
Like those before it, the album continues to integrate Christian themes into incredibly listenable, radio-friendly songs. The album’s opener, “Love Alone is Worth the Fight,” serves as a mission statement of sorts, interweaving the ideas of recollection and rebirth with a message that has been present in Switchfoot’s catalog from the beginning, a message found through the New Testament: the importance of love.
Love for oneself and for the world we live in is central to many Switchfoot songs, and comes across most directly in “The World You Want.” The song explores the connection between people and the world around them, and states quite plainly that we have a responsibility to care for that world in everything we do. One of Jon Foreman’s strengths as a lyricist is his fearlessness to be direct when he sees a significant issue in the world (like “Selling the News” on their previous album, or “Easier Than Love” on 2004’s Nothing is Sound).
He’s no less direct when he turns that magnifying glass on himself, taking on questions of identity and belonging as the band looks back at where they’ve come from. No song on the album demonstrates this more distinctly than “Slipping Away,” the song around which the rest of the album pivots. The second verse reads:
Remember that kid with the quivering lip
Whose heart was on his sleeve like a first aid kit
Where are you now? Where are you now?
Remember that kid didn’t know when to quit
I still lose my breath when I think about it
Oh, where’d you go?
Beneath layers of harmony, the speaker gets to the heart of the bittersweet feeling that comes from looking at a former version of yourself and recognizing how you’ve changed. It seems fitting that the opening guitar melody to this song echoes one of the guitar parts from another nostalgia-laced song on Switchfoot’s previous album—the song “Souvenirs.”
“Souvenirs” could serve as an overture for the entirety of Fading West. The meditations on memory and youth evoked by the lyrics of “Souvenirs” can be found in songs like “Who We Are” (“In the fever of our youth / We’ve got nothing left to lose / There’s still time enough to choose”) and “When We Come Alive” (“Yesterday reads like a tragedy / I try not to lose what’s left of me / But it’s gone / Yeah, but we carry on”).
Foreman’s lyrics are quick to acknowledge the darkness of recollection, but never with a sense of fatalism. Ever-present is the idea of rebirth, the band taking what they’ve learned about themselves and using it as fuel for the future. The album’s closer, “Back to the Beginning Again,” reaffirms the idea that looking back can be a joyous activity, fighting through the “background noise” of everyday life and remembering what it means to do what you’re passionate about.
There’s always a risk when dealing with topics like these that the music won’t match the message, but Switchfoot has never had issues navigating that marriage. The sparse piano arrangement and minor-key feel of a song like “The World You Want” underscores the sense of responsibility the speaker feels toward the world we live in, while the hard rock guitar riffs in a song like “Say It Like You Mean It” emphasize how serious the speaker is about wanting people to be passionate about what they believe in.
Ultimately, signs of the ocean’s influence crop up the most, unifying each of the disparate-sounding songs with a similar musical vocabulary. The layered harmonies in the second verse of “Slipping Away” give the verse a liquid-like sound, while the reverb-laden drums at the end of “Saltwater Heart” resemble the crashing ocean waves. Big crowd vocals have always been a favorite of Switchfoot, but here they seem to find their home, connecting songs like “Who We Are” and “When We Come Alive” back to the crowds of surfers one might find on the beach, enjoying the communion of summer fun.
In getting back in touch with their roots, Switchfoot has created an album that’s plastered with a strong sense of nostalgia, exploring all at once ideas of rediscovering one’s identity and leaving the person you once were behind. With a sensibility that’s just off the beaten path when it comes to mainstream music, they’ve created yet another satisfying set of tracks that refuse to settle for the surface level.
Ian Doherty is an online copywriter from Syracuse, NY with a major in creative writing and a minor in music theory & literature from Susquehanna University. When he’s not writing, he’s working on music or contemplating life’s biggest questions, including “Did I remember to lock the car?”