This is a difficult review to write; difficult, because there’s probably no greater Switchfoot apologist than me. Their vocalist/primary songwriter Jon Foreman is near the top of my favorite songwriter list. On a personal note, few songwriters of the Christian variety speak more effectively to my heart than Foreman. And yet, “Fading West,” the band’s latest full-length, leaves me a disappointed. There, I’ve said it.
Maybe this letdown (which is hardly beautiful at all) is felt so deeply because the group’s prior effort, “Vice Verses,” was so darn good. Songs like “Afterlife,” “The War Inside,” “Restless” and “Where I Belong” still play in my internal jukebox continually. I’m having trouble reconciling how a band that could create such fantastic lyrical/musical masterpieces in the recent past, could fall so short, so often now.
I like “Love Alone is Worth the Fight,” an early single, which – though slightly light on content – is at least a memorable sing along anthem – something Switchfoot has always done well. But how can they justify including “When We Come Alive,” a seemingly blatant rip-off of Coldplay? Switchfoot has never been what one might consider overly original stylistically. Nevertheless, they haven’t conspicuously stolen from other acts except for, perhaps, a little of U2’s aura back at the beginning. But then again, even some of the best Christian acts have been ‘inspired’ by U2 in the past – they’re just too good to ignore. Compare the hook for Coldplay’s “Paradise” with “When We Come Alive,” and see if you don’t also experience déjà vu, over and over again.
While “When We Come Alive” is this album’s greatest sonic offender, there are also a few minor quibbles as well. “Slipping away,” for instance, has a studio affected vocal on it. That’s okay for, say, Cher, someone who could never really sing that well in the first place, but should be anathema for a solid vocalist like Foreman. Then there’s “Let It Out,” which bounces to a slight dance groove, which seems better suited for Selena Gomez than a veteran rock band like Switchfoot. Lastly, “Saltwater Heart” is underpinned by a touch of synth pop, which is always great for The Killers, but not really in Switchfoot’s musical wheelhouse.
I can live with sonic experimentation, so long as the songs are good. I mean, I’ve put up with Neil Young all these years, even though he’s taken his music down some fairly dead end stylistic cul-de-sacs at times. Yet lyrically, Foreman just doesn’t appear to have much to say this time out. Perhaps that’s why the act has tried to play dress-up with its songs so emperor’s-new-clothes-esquely. Worst of all, there isn’t one single song that’s made it to my internal jukebox – not even accidently and annoyingly. I’ve given the album time to grow on me, too, but like a plant with a sky full of sun and a large lake of water, there’s hardly a sprout or memorable-ness. Our heroes have faded just a touch this time out.