A Review of Switchfoot’s New Album “Fading West” — The Greatest Christian Rock Album Ever?

Writer Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods HouseIn my lifetime, I can count on one hand the albums in which every note, rhythm, lyric, timbre, and texture was a thing of exquisite beauty.

I’ve just added Switchfoot’s new album to that list.

Fading West is a rapturous, heart-pounding triumph of an album that captures that feeling you have when, after you’ve had some revelation or breakthrough in your life, you stay up all night excitedly thinking about it or talking to a friend because you’re too overwhelmed to sleep. You’ve got too much adrenaline in your veins, and you’re staring a hole through the ceiling of your room until you can see the clouds and stars. That’s this album in a nutshell.

I don’t know for sure if the band set out to capture that kind of joyous exhilaration, but whether or not they did, the atmosphere of the album — from the first note to the last beat — trembles with that nervous, frightening joy you feel when you take your first step on a big life-changing adventure.

It comes out tomorrow (Tuesday, January 14). Before you read why I believe this album might be one of the greatest Christian rock albums ever recorded, feel free to check it out here:

How does Switchfoot pull this off?

Musically speaking, it’s a very big sound. Big does not mean busy or cluttered. No, in fact, it’s more like standing under the dome of an empty cathedral in Rome. The soundscape is wide, spacious, and carefully arranged so that there’s plenty of room for your thoughts. They don’t pound you over the head with the mixes and production. The skillful use of reverb — probably more than I’ve heard on any previous Switchfoot album — is what gives the soaring vocals and massive melodic hooks (backed by choir-style layering) a feeling of vast spaciousness. The songwriting and epic stadium-sized anthems — especially in “Love Along is Worth the Fight,” “When We Come Alive,” and “Back to the Beginning Again” — trigger associations with the best tracks on Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto; and I mean that as a very big compliment. It’s only a slight resemblance, however. Switchfoot is not a Coldplay-wannabe (Switchfoot pre-dates Coldplay, for one thing). They are their own entity, and they’ve carved out a unique sonic space in the rock world since they started in the ’90s.

But, frankly, they’ve taken their songwriting to a new level with this album. It’s the kind of mature writing that makes you want to put it on repeat and listen to it all day.

Some other observations about the music: the drums are colossal. They’ve been given their own extra dose of reverb, reminding me a little of the larger-than-life ’80s drum kit sounds; and in some songs they take center-stage and just shake everything in sight. Everything is just bigger in this album. The music feels like a skyscraper. Yet everything has been carefully thought through, and they are not indulgent or excessive, which again brings back to mind the image of an empty cathedral. Everything is of such a scale that it just naturally causes your eyes to look up without a flurry of clutter or distraction.

Switchfoot also ventures into some new territory in some tracks. They don’t do the epic cathedral anthem on every song. They know when to unplug the hugeness and change it up. They do this, for the most part, by injecting some G-R-O-O-V-E: i.e. soul, a subtle vintage 1980s Michael Jackson vibe, and even a little tiny hint of hip-hop and dub step (just a tiny little dash, like throwing a few sprinkles of pepper onto a dish). “Say It Like You Mean,” for example, while not containing any rap, reminds me of “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, but with Jon Foreman singing snappy, tight melodic phrases that match up with the drums and bass groove. “Ba55” sounds like a Michael Jackson song from Thriller genetically fused with the U2 song “Zoo Station” from Achtung Baby. There’s 8-bit crunch and dub step bass lines in “All or Nothing at All” that — perhaps for the first time — embed some serious electro-pop circuitry into Switchfoot’s trademark rock sound; and the gorgeous, aching track “Slipping Away” features some stunning harmonic processing of Jon Foreman’s voice that is a nod to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

Bear in mind, all of the electronic sounds above are subtle and used with restraint. Switchfoot has not “gone electronica.” There are still very much a rock band — rest assured.

Lyrically, over the years I’ve become accustomed to Switchfoot asking plenty of challenging, difficult — even dark — questions in their lyrics. This album, however, shimmers with a bright hope that feels much more unabashed, as if Foreman got tired of complicating his joy with elaborate poetic layers and just felt like standing on top of a hill and waving his torch in the air for all to see.

It’s their most joyous album yet, in my opinion.

For example, in the song “Saltwater Heart,” Jon Foreman sings: “When I’m on your shore again, / I can feel the ocean / I can feel your open arms…I’m finally free again.” The final track of the album, called “Back to the Beginning Again,” is one of the most exhilarating songs I’ve ever heard. Most albums end with a ballad or something subdued. Not this one — no way. The final track is a joyous, upbeat race to the finish line like a runner lifting his arms as he breaks the tape — Jon sings: “My hope is anchored on the other side, with the colors that live outside of the line.”

That sense of childlike joy and adventure — i.e. the exhilaration of a kid seeing the ocean for the first time and running so fast to the shoreline that he doubles over to catch his breath before jumping in — is what this album is all about.

Not only is it Switchfoot’s most joyous, triumphant album of their long career, it is the best musical and technical work they’ve ever done; and, if I may be so bold: it could very well be one of the greatest Christian rock albums ever made.

I say that very seriously. It’s that good. Here’s my logic: Fading West is Switchfoot’s best album. Switchfoot is arguably one of the most successful rock bands in Christian music history. Therefore, by means of deduction, Fading West is one of the greatest Christian rock albums ever.

But it didn’t come easy for them.

Our staff writer and correspondent Josh Belcher recently had a chat with Jon Foreman, which you can read here; and, in the interview, Foreman said this about Fading West:

For me, [these songs] come from the uncomfortable places. Awkward, painful places where I feel tested and face-to-face with the questions that don’t have easy answers. In this process, some songs arrive intact. It’s as if they write themselves, jumping off of your tongue, breathing their own life from the first note. Other songs are chased down, tackled, coaxed back to life and glued together. These songs require extra effort and are usually built around a big concept — big enough to make you want to work for it. Over the years I’ve experienced both sides of songwriting styles. Neither is better or worse, but sometimes the bigger fish put up a bigger fight. These are the creatures that won’t be tamed. Claws, fangs…dangerous and beautiful stuff. Using this metaphor, Fading West is the biggest fish we’ve ever tried to reel in.

You can certainly feel some of that tension in songs like “Slipping Away,” where Foreman sings in the chorus: “I feel like I’m dreaming, staring up at the ceiling, / It’s 4 in the morning, I can’t sleep, and it feels like a warning…I feel like I’m slipping away.”

While the lyrics express moments of tension and while tracks like “The World You Want” still ask those tough, in-your-face questions that Switchfoot likes to ask, the music juxtaposes those challenging moments with heart-pounding joy. It is a fascinating contrast.

While sticklers in the Christian music industry will raise one holy eyebrow of concern and squint their eyes because the band does not audibly say, sing, whisper, or sign “Jesus” or Christianeze words on this album, the Spirit of Christ and the unconquerable triumph and joy of the Good News is all over it. Sure, he doesn’t throw out churchy buzz words, but as I listened to each song, my heart’s first reaction was a good one: I wanted to stand up, lift my hands to my Father, and thank Him for all of the joy and new beginnings He has given me.

They shall be known by their fruit.

The album is also very personal for the band members, which might be why the music is so convincing and heartfelt. In his interview with Josh at Rockin’ God’s House, Jon Foreman said this about the track “Who We Are”:

As a band, our identity is forged by what we’ve endured together — the highs and the lows of the past eight albums together. This is a song that we wrote looking back at our story: a band of brothers, sleeping in vans, armed only with words, melodies, and ambition, trying to conquer the world together.
Oh, and they also made a movie to go along with the album — as if the album itself wasn’t enough work.

Check out more info about the movie here, and listen to the tracks through our links below. The album comes out tomorrow and, frankly, I can’t wait.