Native Tongue

Switchfoot

Fantasy Records, 2019

http://www.switchfoot.com

REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/28/2019

Here’s the thing about writing music reviews: after a while, it becomes difficult not to start writing the review in your head as you’re listening to an album. As you take in new music for the first time, you’re already looking for the themes that leap out of the speakers, the risks the artist is taking (or refusing to take), and the narrative your review will pursue. Forming your impression and articulating it start to happen almost simultaneously.

The problem with mentally writing your review as you go, of course, is that you don’t really know what you’re listening to until you’ve heard the album all the way through. Review as you go and sometimes you’ll wind up with three, four, maybe even ten different reviews in one, a schizophrenic series of hot takes instead of one unified idea.

But reviewing as you go can also tell an album’s story, or more accurately, your story of what listening to the album is like from the first note to the last. And following that progression can sometimes be all the narrative a review needs. So here’s the story of my experience with Native Tongue, the eleventh studio offering from DV favorite Switchfoot.

Review #1: Tracks 1-4

Oh man, Switchfoot is back! After two straight misfires in Fading West and Where the Light Shines Through, albums marred by a heavy hand in the production booth and few standout songs, it looks like Jon Foreman and Company have regrouped and shown up with something to say. “Let It Happen” makes clear from the outset that Switchfoot’s main message since “Dare You To Move” made them stars in the early 2000s – that there’s more to life than the soulless materialism of the American Dream – will carry on here, accompanied by the comfort food of soaring guitars and Foreman’s voice. And “Native Tongue” argues, with a funky tribal motif, that the message is needed now more than ever. When the catchy chorus comes to a close one last time, you think the song is over, only for Foreman to quietly and powerfully throw down the gauntlet: “I want the world to sing in her native tongue / Maybe we could learn to sing along / To find a way to use our lungs for love and not the shadows.”

“All I Need” is a vintage Switchfoot anthem, maybe not as stirring as classics like “We Are One Tonight” or “Your Love Is a Song,” but certainly in the same vein musically. And “Voices,” while the weakest of the first four tracks, takes the most risks musically, relying heavily on the production booth to tell the song’s story about all the different influences we contend with every day. Normally too much work at the board hurts Switchfoot’s sound, but here it fits the song’s theme and works overall.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Looks like we’ve got a return to form for the boys from San Diego!

Review #2: Tracks 5-8

Hmm. Well. Maybe I got ahead of myself.

It seems now we’re getting to the hit or miss section of the album. “Prodigal Soul” is a definite hit, the kind of spiritual-but-not-in-your-face-about-it tune that has kept Switchfoot in the good graces of both the rock and CCM worlds for two decades. Foreman’s vocals shine here in a song that would fit on any of the band’s best albums. “Joy Invincible” has the right ingredients for similar success, but the overproduction that threatened to ruin the band’s last two albums has that effect on this song. There’s a potential gem in there, but it’s been so aggressively polished that it’s hard to see the substance behind the shine.

Unfortunately, “Dig New Streams” and “The Hardest Art” are both filler tracks: not bad, but too dull for me to even know what to say about them. In fact, after listening to the album all the way through half a dozen times, I’m having trouble even remembering what they sound like well enough to write this paragraph. Switchfoot’s strength is their ability to inspire, and these songs leave you flat.

So maybe I spoke too soon. This album may be more of a mixed bag than it seemed at first.

Review #3: Tracks 9-14

Oof. We’re done, right?

I’m trying to come up with something interesting to say about the second half of Native Tongue, but it’s tough to be insightful about mediocre love songs, which is almost exclusively what you find here.

“Take My Fire” is a bright spot, the kind of banger some sports team might play over a highlight video. It also has the benefit of originality, sounding unlike anything else on the album with rat-a-tat verses that border on rapping followed by a crunchy guitar chorus. And “Strength To Let Go,” while not transcendent by any means, is another above-average anthem, albeit one marred (again) by overproduction.

The less said about the remaining tracks the better. This review is already long enough. If you’re looking for the musical equivalent of a master chef handing you cotton candy, that’s mostly what you’re getting from the second half of Native Tongue.

Final Thoughts

Here’s my fear: this album bears a striking resemblance to Switchfoot’s career arc.

It starts off having something bold and profound to say, and says it with style and conviction, immediately getting your attention. Jon Foreman’s lyrics and made-for-alternative-music voice pair brilliantly with the surfer rock stylings of his bandmates, and you’re sure this thing is going places.

But somewhere in the middle, complacency seems to set in, and risks give way to a tried-and-true formula that leaves the listener wanting more (and not in the good way.) There are still bright spots, but the they’re not enough to lift what surrounds them.

And as the end draws near, you realize you’re looking forward to the silence more than the next song. There’s something tragic about watching a pitcher lose his fastball, when your enjoyment is tied more to loyalty and nostalgia than to the joy of watching a master at work. You’ll always have those first few tracks, the hopefulness of the new. But maybe it’s time to call it a day.

Native Tongue deserves a listen. But like its creators, its best moments come early and it overstays its welcome. And if you’re like me, you’ll walk away with a sad conclusion that’s been a nagging fear for years now: maybe we don’t need another Switchfoot album after all.

Rating: B-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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