Sunday, February 18, 2007

Oh! Gravity – Switchfoot

I never really got Switchfoot, as least not until just recently. Bethany bought their second album (New Way to Be Human) way back when it came out (1999 or so) and I think I might have listened to it once or twice. They were certainly on my radar screen back then as one of the few artists signed to Charlie Peacock’s ReThink label. I was (and still am) a fan of Peacock’s smart and thoughtful music and his work as a producer. In fact I’ve had two chances to talk with him at length at Calvin – once in my office, just the two of us for about an hour which was wonderful – and my appreciation for him has grown through those encounters. So when he signed this trio (now up to five members) from San Diego I at least perked up. For some reason though I didn’t really grab onto New Way to Be Human but I at least kept my eye on Switchfoot because I trusted Charlie.

A couple of years ago they played a free concert in Grand Rapids just after their stock took off big-time because of getting their stuff on some Mandy Moore movie (A Walk to Remember maybe?). I took my kids to see them (they were, at the time, Meredith’s favorite band) and, while I didn’t really know their music at the time, they were fun to listen to. I stood in the back because I didn’t want to get slammed in the pit with all the high school kids but I remember listening to The Beautiful Letdown once or twice and thinking that it was OK.

I also remember the debacle around the release of Nothing is Sound, in which Sony put out their album with a copy protection thing on it that meant that you couldn’t play it on itunes or rip it to your computer without using their special software. Yeah, it was a pain and so I didn’t listen to Meredith’s copy much. I was more interested in the fallout as a business and technological issue than the music. All in all, Switchfoot was firmly in the "I won't turn them off but I probably won't buy them" category for quite some time.

So, for some reason, when their latest album, Oh! Gravity, came out and I saw it on sale right after Christmas, I bought it. I really don't know why. I think I figured that most of my kids would want to hear it and I knew I had more money then they did so I did it to be a nice dad. I also like to support Christians who are working effectively the in the mainstream so I just bought it on a whim. And you know what? It has stayed in my CD player almost continuously ever since.

When I get a new album I won’t listen much if the music doesn’t move me so there is sometimes a pretty short window for an album to get seriously listened to. In this case, the music did move me. I found the melodies and the arrangements on Oh! Gravity to be interesting and compelling. They players aren’t virtuosi but they do well enough for the genre and the dorky piano break about a minute into the first song oozes fun and creativity.

The lyrical themes on this album follow the same lines as previous Switchfoot albums in that they tend to be somewhat dark, focusing on a sense of emptiness. You get the feeling that Foreman is trying to tap into the malaise that his generation feels without feeling the need to point to Christ as the answer in every song. In fact, there is no explicitly Christian content – at least that I have found so far. Of course, it is not always clear what Jon Foreman is referring to in his lyrics but most of the time I’m just bopping my head and enjoying the groove. Occasionally, though, the lyrics jump out at me, as in the opening to “American Dream”:

When success is equated with excess
The ambition for excess wrecks us
As top of the mind becomes the bottom line
When success is equated with excess.

There is some fun wordplay here and it’s hard to miss his point. Other songs aren’t quite so clear. For example, in “Amateur Lovers,” when he sings

We don't know what we're doing
We do it again
We're just amateur lovers
With amateur friends

we aren’t really sure whether this is a good thing or not. I don’t want to complain too much, though, because I have really enjoyed this album. I also really appreciate that Foreman and the rest of the band let their Christian perspective show through in their music, even if it’s not explicit. Oh! Gravity is not Great Art but it is a pretty cool album that I continue to enjoy.


Beth said...

Since Switchfoot have already made one very direct U2 lyrical citation from Rattle & Hum, I have to wonder if that "success/excess" pairing isn't borrowed from "God Part 2." Thanks for the review - I should check this album out. Have you heard the new Arcade Fire, "Neon Bible"? It is jaw-droppingly good.

Bob K said...

Hi Beth - tell me more about the other U2 lyrical citation! Plus, Neon Bible comes out in something like two weeks doesn't it? How have you heard it already?

Beth said...

From Gone:
"Every moment that we borrow
Brings us closer to the God who’s not short of cash
Hey Bono I’m glad you asked."
This is a reference to the live performance of "Bullet the Blue Sky" on "Rattle and Hum."

Neon Bible - let's just say it has been widely leaked. Of course I will also be buying a hard copy. (Also, NPR streamed one of the live tour warm-up shows from New York on Saturday night, where they played nearly the whole album.)

Bob K said...

Thanks, Beth - you're right about the Bono reference - that's a hard one to miss. Clearly Jon Foreman listens to U2! And I'll have to give The Beautiful Letdown a more careful listen.