Columbia Records’ most recent signing — San Diego, Calif.-based rockers Switchfoot — recently made their major-label debut with The Beautiful Letdown, a record far more troubling than anything that Eminem, Missy Elliott, or Insane Clown Posse could possibly offer up. For while these artists are busy regaling pop culture with silly little songs about drug-taking, meaningless sex, and spouse-murder, Switchfoot has filled an entire record with profoundly disturbing and troubling questions.
With a sound that mixes pop with the hard-rock stylings of King’s X, with shades of Depeche Mode and The Police, Switchfoot relentlessly challenges nearly everything that suburban America treasures. The American dream has survived the assaults of Eminem, Korn, and Marilyn Manson — but can it survive Switchfoot?
“Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open, maybe we’re bent and broken,” the band’s sonic assault begins. “We were meant to live for so much more, have we lost ourselves?”
Signed to the independent label Re:think in 1997, Switchfoot’s first album The Legend of Chin went largely unheard in mainstream rock circles, but the band enjoyed a resurgence of sorts when the producers of the 2002 hit movie A Walk To Remember used several of the band’s songs in their soundtrack.
Rock’s potential to inspire social change and personal transformation is quietly being recognized by a most unlikely cast of characters — serious Christians who are marching into mainstream rock and making innovative and sometimes disturbing music that seems miles away from the comfortable, safe, and nice American brand of Christianity that inspired pundit Franky Schaeffer to refer to its adherents as “Evan-jellyfish.”
“This is your life are you who you want to be?” asks lead singer John Foreman in track #2. “Is it everything you dreamed it would be when you were younger and you had everything to lose?” The theme continues throughout the album to track #8: “Everything inside you knows there’s more than what you’ve heard.”
Occasionally Foreman and Switchfoot hint at answers, but mostly they stick with questions, adapting the technique first perfected by One who both inspired and annoyed the masses by seeming to first offer up at least as many questions as He did answers.
What the members of Switchfoot also have in common with their Master is a steady stream of complaints from fellow believers that they are not being clear enough in their music — that asking questions is good, but true and lasting spiritual transformation cannot take place amidst such vagaries.
Faced with similar accusations 2,000 years ago, Christ replied cryptically that his message was “for those who have ears to hear,” and Switchfoot seems similarly inclined. Of course, the genius of that Divine method of storytelling was that it allowed people to see their own sin in the stories of others, and thus be motivated to change themselves from within, with Divine help from without. Such seems to be the effect of Switchfoot’s music, as song after song hammers the listener with disturbing questions — and only hints of answers. When they do come, those answers find their voice in lines that could be easily missed.
“Everything inside screams for second life,” Foreman sings in the opening track, then adds later: “We want more than this world has to offer.”
On the title track, “Beautiful Letdown,” the band turns up the heat: “It was a beautiful letdown the day I knew that all the riches this world had to offer me would never do.”
On “Dare you To Move,” Foreman & co. finally begin connecting the dots between all the questions and answering them succinctly. But by then, a steady stream of profound questions has earned them their right to be heard:
“The tension is here between who you are and who you could be, between how it is and how it should be. Salvation is here.”
“Letdown” raises several questions: Can a popular culture built upon virtues like Mom, apple pie, God, and country survive Switchfoot’s musical scrutiny? How many mid-life crises will this record trigger? Do fans of pop/rock music want to be challenged in this way?
This robust collection of songs awaits those answers. Meanwhile, Switchfoot continues to speak and sing for many bands emerging from a community that has long been kept on the fringes of American public life when it sings:
“I will carry a cross and a song where I don’t belong.”
— Mark Joseph is author of Faith, God & Rock ‘n’ Roll — How People Of Faith Are Transforming American Popular Music.