There really are few, if any, bands out there at all like Switchfoot. This San Diego rock band has been putting out music that is both musically compelling and lyrically thought-provoking since 1997, and now here they are at the start of 2014 gearing up to release their ninth studio album, Fading West. Throughout 2012, the band documented a journey they took around the world as they played shows, surfed, and found inspiration for this new album in a film of the same name, and the album plays beautifully as a soundtrack to that film. It stands alone just as well as any other Switchfoot album too, and although as a whole it may not quite fall among the ranks of the band’s strongest works, it’s a blast to listen to and is loaded with potential mass appeal while still sounding distinctly like Switchfoot.
Following up a rock record as deep and compelling as 2011’s Vice Verses, the sound of this album might feel a little jarring for longtime Switchfoot fans- the best way to categorize it would probably be under pop rock, but then again it just has so much more to offer than pretty much any other pop album. Many of these songs sound ready to take the radio by storm, and while in almost all other cases I would use the adjective “radio-friendly” as an insult, here I actually mean it as a complement. Switchfoot has never sounded more radio-friendly, and yet radio-friendly has rarely, if ever, sounded so darned good. “When We Come Alive” is the finest example of this with a massive chorus that simply sings, “We are fire / burning brightly, you and I / we light the sky when we ignite / when we come alive” couched in by verses about struggles to find hope when life seems hopeless.
One particularly interesting facet of this album’s sonic palette is that the band avoided guitars as much as possible during much of the recording process. Where their music has been largely guitar-driven in the past, Fading West uses all sorts of different sounds at its core. Sometimes it’s a slick bass line, a resounding drumbeat, a melodic piano part, or some combination of keyboard and electric guitar effects. The overall sound feels incredibly fresh and makes you feel like you’re at the beach surfing (or watching people surf, if you’re a cold water wimp like me), which makes sense given the inspiration for the album. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll especially understand and appreciate this, but even if you haven’t, it still finds its own footing and should deliver the same vibe.
These new sounds play out very well over the course of the whole record with few hiccups. The album’s weakest track, though, is probably “Let It Out,” which sees the band treading waters dangerously close to generic pop, yet it still possesses a distinct charm and makes use of some particularly sweet background vocals. Other than that, the only other potential issue I see with the album is that it never really softens up the sound with a ballad like the band has always done so successfully in the past. A different sort of variety is captured on the record, though, and the band still manages to pull off many different sounds and make them all fit together in an incredibly cohesive manner. For instance, the sweeping pop rock of “When We Come Alive” gives way to the album’s only bona fide rocker, “Say It Like You Mean It,” which then transitions into the album’s mellowest track, “The World You Want,” and it never feels jarring or unnatural. So despite a minor weak spot or two, Fading West is simply brilliant in almost every way.
There are many standout tracks on Fading West that simply must be mentioned for me to post this review in good conscience. I already mentioned how amazing “When We Come Alive” is; my next favorite song on the record is probably the soaring opening track, “Love Alone Is Worth the Fight,” for its captivating sounds and superbly written lyrics. “Saltwater Heart” is also a highlight, again for the brilliant lyrics, and also for its infectious and just plain incredible chorus; I can’t shake the feeling that they have more than geography in mind with the line, “When I’m on your shore again,” and I think I love the song for that most of all. The album closes out excellently as well with the final track “Back To the Beginning Again,” with its upbeat and driving chorus that features more favorite lyrics of mine (“My heart is yours / and what a broken place it’s in / but you’re what I’m running for / and I want to feel the wind at my back again”). Meanwhile, “All Or Nothing At All” is a simply fantastic pop tune, “Slipping Away” is moving and powerful, “Ba55” is epic and has an incredible beat, and lead single “Who We Are” is a great indie-flavored song about identity (“We become what we believe in”). And there I go mentioning almost every song… but that’s just how it tends to go with Switchfoot albums, they’re always rock solid from start to finish.
I think it’s safe to say that Fading West is not merely a tribute to the west coast (though that seems to tie in)- right from the start they sing, “Love alone is worth the fight,” and the rest of the album affirms and expands that statement. Fading West drives that message home in a package so tight and fun that even the most diehard Switchfoot fan should welcome the change in their sound. This may not be Switchfoot’s strongest album overall, but that’s not to say it isn’t simply fantastic. No matter your musical persuasions, don’t hesitate to check out Fading West.
Standout Tracks: “When We Come Alive,” “Love Alone Is Worth the Fight,” “Saltwater Heart,” “Back To the Beginning Again,” “All Or Nothing At All”