Where The Light Shines Through

Switchfoot

Vanguard, 2016

http://www.switchfoot.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/13/2016

If Switchfoot and I were a couple, our relationship status on Facebook right now would be “It’s complicated.”

In 2005 the earnest San Diego quintet made an album (Nothing Is Sound) that still ranks among my favorite releases of the last 20 years. Before and since, they’ve made album after album full of sharp-eyed, full-hearted, dynamic compositions that explore spiritual and philosophical concerns without ever locking the band, or their audience, inside a strictly Christian framework. It’s a delicate tightrope walk that they have navigated with admirable grace.

Beyond their spiritual bent, the other characteristic that’s been true of Switchfoot—Jonathan Foreman (vocals & guitar), Tim Foreman (bass), Chad Butler (drums), Jerome Fontamillas (keys) and Drew Shirley (guitar)—from the beginning is a creative restlessness, a desire to continually push boundaries and evolve their musical identity. Since Nothing Is Sound, the quintet has veered back and forth between immediacy and slickness, straightforward approaches and experimentation, from album to album and track to track.

The point where things began to unravel between me and a band I still admire a great deal was with 2014’s Fading West. Not because of the songs themselves, which have always been, and continue to be, dynamic, smartly crafted and full of heart—but because Fading West saw the group embrace a sleek, gimmicky, highly commercial production approach that stunted the impact of the guitars and trapped Jon Foreman’s magnificently human voice behind a screen of filters and auto-tune.

The fact that the band parted ways with Fading West producer Neal Avron prior to recording this album gave me hope initially. But although Where The Light Shines Through was co-produced by the band with John Fields, who was at the boards for three of the band’s strongest albums (The Beautiful Letdown, Nothing Is Sound, and Oh! Gravity), they’ve unfortunately retained many of the most off-putting aspects of Fading West’s sound. From the top, both the rather heavy-handed opening anthem “Holy Water” and the otherwise catchy white-soul number “Float” suffer under the weight of overbearing, filtered-tweaked-and-reverbed-to-infinity production. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Batting third, the title track is a clear highlight here, a punchy mid-tempo blues that frames an inspirational message inside a stripped-down late-Beatles arrangement and keeps the irritating production tricks to a minimum. (Sidebar: It was also interesting, having just finished Sylvie Simmons’ terrific biography I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen, to note the parallels between this song’s central idea—“Your wounds are where the light shines through”—and Cohen’s “Anthem,” where he famously sings “There is a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.” Cohen is another songwriter who has managed to incorporate spiritual themes in much of his work without ever pretending to have all the answers; he just keeps finding new ways to ask the questions.)

“I Won’t Let You Go” is another strong number, a moving ballad of devotion and reassurance; the human imperfections you hear in Foreman’s vocals on the verses are exactly what makes this song work as well as it does. As if to underscore this point, the very next song, the brawny “If The House Burns Down Tonight,” undercuts a potent anti-materialism message (“You possess your possessions or they possess you”) with a wall of sheen.

Moving on: the playful “Bull In A China Shop” is an energetic, semi-rapped number with some nasty-sweet blues licks on the breaks. “Healer Of Souls” is a similarly frisky cut with muscular guitars and rhythm section—so why mess up a good thing by masking the vocals? The explicitly spiritual “The Day That I Found God” feels like it might be more at home on a Foreman solo album; “Shake This Feeling” collapses under the weight of its over-the-top production; and while “Live It Well” and “Hope Is The Anthem” are solid enough, they also both feel a little familiar, like rewrites of previous Switchfoot songs.

“Looking For America” is another one with familiar elements, merging the themes of “American Dream” from 2006’s Oh! Gravity with the rap attack of “Selling The News” from 2011’s Vice Verses, while adding Lecrae to the mix. That said, the message is powerful—“Do away with your ignorance and arrogance / America the land of immigrants”—and laconic surfer-dude Foreman and rapper Lecrae are more musically compatible than you might expect. In the end I respect this track more than I love it, but it’s definitely a strong statement.

And now it’s my turn to repeat myself, inasmuch as my view of Where The Light Shines Through is fueled by the same concerns found in my review of Fading West. Switchfoot is a band that crafts songs rich with emotion that help to connect the members of its audience with their own humanity. To then hide the band’s humanity behind layers of filters and gimmicks and auto-tune is more than just contradictory—it’s self-sabotage. Accessibility and authenticity are the whole ballgame for a band like Switchfoot; the production should be as raw and direct as Jonathan Foreman’s best lyrics.

Switchfoot is an important band with an important message about living a life of meaning and purpose without trapping yourself inside a cage of religious dogma. They just seem to be making some unfortunate decisions right now about how to present their songs.

Like I said: it’s complicated.

Rating: B-

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