As I begin this review, I should probably note that I’ve been a Switchfoot fan since I first heard “Meant to Live” on the radio all the way back in 2003. I was 11 years old and just beginning to get into music at the time. Switchfoot quickly became one of my favorite bands – a place that they still hold 13 years later. I remember often lying in my bed late at night and waiting for one of their songs like “Stars” or “Dare You To Move” to come on the radio. In a way, their music has been the soundtrack to my life, and it has been a source of encouragement through the years. Although other bands have had a similar level of impact on me personally, Switchfoot is a rarity in that they’ve managed to maintain a level of popularity and influence over this time that most other bands only dream of achieving.
Truthfully, you have to look back even further than my introduction to the band to gauge their level of success though. Since the band’s debut in 1997, they’ve released 10 studio albums, 2 live albums, a documentary film, 5 live DVDs, and at least 9 EPs. Throughout this time Switchfoot has managed to remain relatively consistent in the quality of their music. Though albums 8 and 9, Vice Verses and Fading West, failed to resonate with me on the same level as their earlier music (I did recently warm up more to Vice Verses), I would be willing to argue that they have never released a truly bad album. It is for this reason that I approached their latest release and 10th studio album, Where The Light Shines Through, with cautious optimism. Though I expected that the album wouldn’t be bad, I was curious as to whether or not they would be able to produce another stand-out album, or simply an album that was good but unremarkable, as I might describe Fading West. After all, it’s not often that a band is even able to produce 10 albums, let alone 10 great albums.
With that being said, let’s dive into the review.
The opening track, “Holy Water”, is a slower mid-tempo Rock song that starts the album on a bit of an odd note. Though the song is pushed forward with a constant driving beat and features some intriguing guitar work and bass lines, it maintains an understated feel. The song does eventually kick in, building up a bit on the choruses, and finally building into a roar during the bridge. The song is solid, and it carries the familiar sound that we would all expect from Switchfoot. It gets the album off to a slow start though, and it feels like a bit of an odd choice for an opening track.
The following track on the album, “Float”, brings a sound that I feel like I haven’t heard from Switchfoot before, and when I heard it the first time I was caught a bit off guard. The song is pretty unique in that it’s a Pop Rock song written in 7/4, which might explain why my initial thought was that it felt a little bit like a new radio single from Mutemath. The song opens up with a funky bass line from Tim Foreman and is held down by steady in-the-pocket drumming from Chad Butler. It features understated riffs with ethereal guitar accents, and Jerome Fontamillas’ quirky synth and key sounds are the icing on the cake. It’s a feel-good song and the music is such that when Jon sings, “It’s how we float, yeah, Feet ain’t even touching ground”, you almost believe him.
To be honest, I didn’t like this song very much when I heard it initially, probably because the sound was so different, but it has grown on me a lot as I’ve listened to the album several times.
The third track, and title track of the album, is where Switchfoot really starts to shine (pun intended). It starts out with a fun lazy guitar riff that sounds reminiscent of something off of one of Switchfoot’s earlier albums like Learning to Breathe. From the first note, the song just feels good – like something that you would expect from a band that spends all of their free days surfing on the shores of California. The song is sort of a slow-burn anthem about finding hope in the struggles of life. On the chorus Jon sings, “Because your scars shine like dark stars, Your wounds are where the light shines through.”
Despite the nature of the lyrics (and perhaps to greater effect), the song maintains a fun, lighthearted feel. Drew Shirley’s lazy upbeat guitar riffs remain consistent throughout; though they are interspersed with a few more complex accents that make the song really interesting. If there’s anything that sets this album apart from all of Switchfoot’s other albums, it’s that Drew’s guitar work is the best that it has ever been. Switchfoot’s songs have always been known for their great riffs, if not for their musical complexity, but on this album Drew’s solos and accents reach a new level of sophistication, which to a great degree also pushes the band’s overall sound to the next level.
The rest of the album continues to explore the diverse range of sounds that Switchfoot has been known for, and also to explore new musical territory. “I Won’t Let You Go” is a beautiful ballad that displays Jon Foreman’s lyrical abilities at their finest (not to mention his falsetto abilities). “If The House Burns Down Tonight” begins with an anthemic chorus from Jon Foreman that feels as though it could be the centerpiece of one of his solo acoustic songs. However, the song quickly builds into a reckless Rock anthem in which Jon explores the question of what we value most in life. The song ends with this emphatic conclusion:
There’s a fire that we all go through
You possess your possessions or they possess you
And if the house burns down tonight
I got everything I need when I got you by my side
And let the rest burn…
The following song on the album is titled “The Day That I Found God”.
One of the things that I have always loved about Switchfoot is that while they have always been open about their faith, they have never tried to be a “Christian band”. Their songs simply explore the themes of life without the pretense of being “religious” in nature – something that has made them an object of criticism at times from overzealous Christians. This lends a certain weight to this song, which is perhaps the boldest lyrical proclamation that Jon has ever made of the message of The Gospel. In it, Jon sings about finding strength in weakness: “I found strength, but it wasn’t what I thought”…
That riches are not found in possessions:
“I found riches ain’t the things that I had bought”…
And how God is found when we lay down our own desires:
“The day I lost myself was the day that I found God”.
Jon also deals openly with having faith in the midst of doubt when he sings:
Where is God out in the darkness
‘Cause the voices in my head ain’t talking honest
They’re saying maybe you made us then forgot us
But that ain’t you, that ain’t you no
Personally, it’s very refreshing to hear an artist deal directly with some of the more challenging aspects of faith, particularly in a world in which the Gospel so directly counters the message of culture, and in which Christians have so often adopted the message of the culture, or have shied away from any artistic dialogue short of happy worship choruses and tacky wall prints from Hobby Lobby.
The album continues with “Shake This Feeling”, a radio-ready Rock song that is nothing short of classic Switchfoot. “Bull in a China Shop” is an album highlight that opens with a funky riff and bassline and features half-spoken lyrics on the verses. The song has a heavy 90s-Alt Rock feel, and almost feels like it could have been a hit song from Smash Mouth… and I mean that in only the best way possible. There’s also a moment on the bridge that sounds distinctly like something from Oasis. Basically, if you’re into 90s Rock like I am, then you’re going to love this song. Even if you’re not, you might love it anyway.
“Live it Well” is another classic Switchfoot song that sounds as though it could easily have been off of The Beautiful Letdown. It has a feeling similar to that of “This is Your Life” or “Dare You to Move”. Perhaps the greatest musical curiosity on the album is the song “Looking for America”, which is a collaboration between Switchfoot and Lecrae. The lyrics are uniquely poignant for our point in time and address the brokenness in our nation and our need for change. Musically, however, I feel that this is the low point on the album, which is a shame considering that I love both Switchfoot and Lecrae. The song is something that conceptually sounds like it should be really awesome but falls short in execution. It’s not a bad song. It’s just nothing special musically.
That’s alright though, because the following song, “Healer of Souls”, turns out to be my favorite rocker on the album. It’s the most riff-heavy song on the album and also has one of the loudest and fuzziest bass tones that Tim Foreman has ever cranked out.
The final song, “Hope is the Anthem”, ends the album on a soft worshipful note, with the lyrics:
My heartbeat, my oxygen
My banner, my home
My future, my song
Your hope is the anthem of my soul
At the close of the song, you can also hear the soft echoed lyrics, “Yeah, could you make me whole? (like holy water)”. This aptly connects to the title track, bringing the album full circle.
Overall, Where the Light Shines Through is a thoroughly enjoyable album that explores most of the sounds that one would expect from Switchfoot. One can hear musical elements that relate back to essentially all of their previous albums, even their early ones. At the same time, they explore some new musical territory, and the album showcases a certain degree of musical maturity and development. It also features some of the strongest lyrics that Jon has written to date.
I have had the album since before its official release and have listened to it many times at this point. I’ve debated what score to give the album, mainly because I’m not a huge fan of the Lecrae track, and because it gets off to a little bit of a slow start. I think that perhaps the best judge of the quality of an album, though, is how many times you can listen to it without getting tired of it. I’ve listened to this album many times now, and I continue to enjoy it. In fact, I’ve grown to appreciate some of the elements more than I did upon my first listen. For this reason, I think it’s fair to give the album a 5/5.
In fact, I would say that it’s a contender to be my pick for album of the year. Like I said, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable album, and it stacks up quite well against Switchfoot’s previous releases.