REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/01/2011
The duality of existence—life and death, joy and sadness, darkness and light—is the focus of Switchfoot’s eighth studio album Vice Verses. It's a theme in the truest sense of the word, carried through every aspect of this release, from the songs themselves to the cover artwork to the track sequencing. This disc also continues the San Diego alt-rock quintet’s album-to-album pattern of experimenting, then consolidating, then experimenting again. The Beautiful Letdown (2003) represented a major expansion of their sound that was brought to fruition on Nothing Is Sound (2005). Oh! Gravity (2006) was all over the place musically, followed by the more focused Hello Hurricane.
Vice Verses tips the scales again in favor of exploration for Switchfoot—Jonathan Foreman (vocals/guitar), Tim Foreman (bass/vocals), Chad Butler (drums), Jerome Fontamillas (keyboards/guitar) and Drew Shirley (guitar). From stadium-ready anthems like thundering opener “Afterlife” and keening closer “Where I Belong,” to the dark, distorted, almost rap-metal-flavored “The War Inside,” to poppy, propulsive numbers like “The Original” and “Rise Above It” and quiet contemplations like “Restless” and “Souvenirs,” these guys can’t or won’t sit still. The biggest stretch of all finds Switchfoot testing their audience’s boundaries with a full-on rap number, and while “Selling The News” is surely the biggest reach here, the experiment is a successful one, a rippling, sturdy monologue about the thoroughly corrupted 24-hour-news-cycle spin machine.
Still, it’s the inspirational power of tunes like the anthemic “Afterlife” and “Dark Horses,” and the fearless introspection of quieter songs like “Thrive” and “Souvenirs” that powers this album, even as the dichotomy they represent—anthems and ballads, light and heavy, big and small—illustrates the album’s theme in bold letters. The title track represents another new wrinkle for the band, an acoustic ballad with just guitar and Foreman’s voice for the most part, pouring out the purest distillation of the album’s theme: “You got your babies, I got my hearses / Every blessing comes with a set of curses / I got my vices / I got my vice verses.”
So how do you navigate that duality in your day-to-day life? How do you cope with a world in which kindness and cruelty, happiness and sadness, good and evil exist side by side? For the guys in Switchfoot, their faith is key—but it’s not a cure-all, and Foreman doesn’t present it as such. The truth is that we can never really answer those questions. We just do the best we can, relying on faith or hope or love or pure stubbornness (or some combination of these) to get through the day.
I’ve commented before on how effectively Switchfoot explores spiritual and philosophical themes without assuming that their audience shares their own Christian perspective. I have to say that on my first listen to Vice Verses, I was a little put off by some of the more overt references to afterlife and resurrection and God and such. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this album as an entry point to the band for anyone who’s skittish about that sort of thing in their music. But if you give these songs a chance, you’ll find that their tone is anything but preachy. It seems to me that what’s happening is simply Jonathan Foreman using the vocabulary of his own life (and faith) to talk about universal concerns. He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; he only articulates the questions better than most.
In just one example of the latter, two minutes into stately, soaring closer “Where I Belong,” in the midst of addressing serious spiritual concerns, Foreman casually drops this beauty: “But I’m not sentimental / This skin and bones is a rental / And no one makes it out alive.” Truth from any perspective.
Vice Verses has its own dual nature, both sprawling and carefully shaped, raw in places and quite polished in others. In hewing as purposefully to a theme as it does, it sometimes feels like it loses some spontaneity. That said, while might not be the strongest album of Switchfoot's career—for that, look to Nothing Is Sound and Hello Hurricane—a notch below their best is impressive altitude indeed.