Switchfoot's albums Learning to Breathe, The Beautiful Letdown, Nothing is Sound and Oh Gravity are like Einstein's miracle year. It is remarkable to me that a band could put out so many quality albums in a row. And when you include Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman's solo project Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer(released just after), it is even more amazing. But then came Hello Hurricane.
The first thing I heard from the new album was on a television commercial promoting a mobile phone. Clearly there was an effort afoot to promote the mainstream commercial success of this album. Mainstream success is not always bad, but music which suits my taste rarely makes it through the filter of popular media. With the exception of The Beautiful Letdown, with its generically encouraging message, none of Switchfoot's material has passed through this filter. As it happens, The Beautiful Letdown is my least favorite album of those I listed above, and I think there is a strong correlation between the relative dislike and its commercial palatability.
With the television commercial as a prelude, I was sadly unsurprised to find that the lyrical content of the new album was bland. Previous albums had themes questioning politics, capitalism, and self-righteousness. But I did not find anything so heavy or interesting in the new album. As it happens, I have never much liked the seemingly random inclusion of "you look beautiful tonight" in song lyrics. It also feels to me like the musical style and lyrics (and vocal delivery of those lyrics) are conspicuously inspired by U2.
Moreover, in cases where there was thematic affinity between Hello Hurricane and Foreman's solo project, I find that the presentation in the solo work is better. For example, in the celebrated genre of self-loathing, Jon Foreman sings thus:
How miserable I am
I feel like a fruit-picker who arrived here
After the harvest
There's nothing here at all
Nothing at all here that could placate my hunger
The godly people are all gone
There's not one honest soul left alive
Here on the planet
We're all murderers and thieves
Setting traps here for even our brothers
And both of our hands are equally skilled
At doing evil, equally skilled
At bribing the judges, equally skilled
At perverting justice
Both of our hands
But in Hello Hurricane we are met with
I've made a mess of me
I wanna get back the rest of me
I've made a mess of me
and I wanna spend the rest of my life alive!
There are a number of other places where the genius of the solo project songs are repackaged in inferior ways. And there seems to be a shortage of operative metaphors at Switchfoot HQ, because we see two tracks employing songs themselves: "Ooh your love is a symphony"; "Take what is left of me, make it a melody." But I think they felt that these songs would sell better.
So I guess I am trying to say they "sold out." But maybe the selling out did not work as intended. I do not know much about the music industry, but I do not think that the success of Hello Hurricane has been on a par with The Beautiful Letdown. I cannot help but wonder if as a result Switchfoot will abandon this commercially palatable style in favor of their former edginess. However, some promotional interviews from Jon Foreman made it sound like Hello Hurricane was the apogee of his artistic expression, so my hope may be in vain:
Talking about the songs leading up to the those that would become Switchfoot’s newest album “Hello Hurricane” Jon Foreman said this. “They didn’t feel like the type of the song you wanted to die singing. And for ‘Hello Hurricane’ that became the prerequisite for the song. If you’re not crying why are you singing it. If you don’t believe it with every ounce of you then there’s no point in singing it.”
I believed in the old songs.