36. The Beautiful Letdown – Switchfoot
THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN (2003)
It will most likely come as quite a surprise to many readers to discover that Switchfoot’s “The Beautiful letdown” is the only Switchfoot album to crack this list. It should be noted that if this list was to be revisited in a few years the bands most recent release, “Vice Versa” would most likely rank quite high as it is easily the best album in the bands career, excepting only the album under consideration here.
My biggest complaint with Switchfoot over its career has been the uncanny ability to write three or four fantastic songs on every album, and then litter the remaining minutes with utterly forgettable songs. “Learning to breathe” came very close to making the list based solely on less than a handful of songs, but the remaining songs are so forgettable it tends to tarnish at least my perception of the band.
But there is no similar issue here with “The Beautiful Letdown.” From the opening riff of the contagious “meant to live” to the final strains of the stunning “Twenty-Four,” the band was at a clear artistic and commercial peak. the two albums that followed sounded as though they were attempts at recreating songs like the ones mentioned above (most notably “Stars”), but not wuite reaching the original’s punch.
I was working at a family Christian store near Point Loma, CA when the first album was released. The band members were local heroes of sorts in the local music scene in the San Diego area long before being discovered by Charlie Peacock and signed to his re:think label. But they also used to shop at my store given its close proximity to Point Loma’s cool surfing opportunities. The band frequented the store and I would listen to their demos long before the debut. Great guys all around!
The band’s name is taken from a surfing term describing switching ones feet on the surf board in order to change direction and movements. It seemed like a fitting name for the band of surfers.
Early releases would sport of rough, garage or indie type sound that endeared the band to the underground music scene throughout the country. But after three album the band was without a label. They quickly signed with mainstream label Columbia in hopes of fulfilling the bands ultimate goal of breaking into the mainstream music field. Columbia helped the band build a pre-release mainstream acceptance with a push to have much of the bands stronger earlier music appear on the Mandy Moore movie vehicle, “A Walk to Remember.” The original version of “Dare You to Move,” which appears on this album was used in a key moment in the movie as well as the dual focused appearance of their “Only Hope.” In fact Moore performs the song as part of the movie storyline as well of Switchfoot’s version appearing later during the credits.
But it was with “The Beautiful Letdown” that the band broke through the mainstream glass ceiling and, as a result, have sold nearly 3 million copies of this amazing project. The album sales were sparked and then carried by a series of very popular radio hits on both Christian and mainstream stations. In fact, many songs from the album forced many more AC or pop CCM stations to expand their musical boundaries to accommodate playing the popular band’s hits.
The album’s sound is more polished and “bigger” production than the first three projects by leaps and bounds. the addition of former Mortal/Fold Zandura keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas helped create this improved sonic appeal.
The album starts off with the catchy and powerful, “Meant to Live.” This is what could be called an “uber-hit.” The song stayed on Christian and mainstream radio playlists for what seemed like years, not just months. The cry for a life with meaning appealed to both formats and the original, gut-smashing, intricate guitar sound was like nothing else on radio at the time. Eight years later the song would still be hit! The song would also point to a depth in lyrical content the band had not previously shown. Always smart and original, now the band was making faith statement no longer wrapped in common Christian vernacular and the theme of commonality amongst all humans became an overarching theme that repeats itself on several occasions throughout the project.
“This is Your Life” follows and the keyboard introduction shows the influence of Fontamillas most clearly. The electronic percussion are also new and create a significantly different feel than anything previous. But it here that frontman Jon Foreman begins to show what a quality vocalist he is. Subtle and soft verses, not quite whispered, but far from growling rock. But then the chorus and final vamping shows a true rock star in action. Again, the theme of wanting more in life and needing to find the truth are explored.
If the first song played to me was the next song, “More Than Fine,” I may have never guessed the artist. The synthesizer and acoustic guitar driven song underlies Foreman’s more silky and sly vocals. One reviewer referred to his vocals as Bono-like, and I understand the comment, but Foreman is less sexy and yet more expressive and diverse.
An all time favorite is “Ammunition.” The Edge-like guitar that starts the song unleashes a rock attack that is unrelenting. Those looking for excuses in life are put in their place. A long time live favorite, Foreman truly rocks out here like no where else.
When the album slows down for the reworking of “Dare You to Move,” the listener immediately realizes they are listening to a monster hit. The listener also realizes they are not just listening to a good band’s latest ten song, but a real collection of well thought out epic songs. Where the previous song refuses to accept excuses for life’s circumstances, “Dare You to Move” is an anthem demanding one make a difference in their own life and those around them. A bit edgier than the original, the song though remained a mainstay on Christian radio for a very long time. It may also possess the most passionate chorus in the bands repertoire. The band was also able to introduce a concept like redemption without sounding in any way “preachy.”
Ironically the band would follow a song hinting at redemption with a song of the same name. Very few bands have ever dealt with such a subject in a such a hook-filled manner. The song continues the albums great sense of rock grooves while never sounding derivative.
The title track shows a darker tone and even more of the Fontamillas influence. There is even an 80’s influence that creeps into the somber melody and building musical structure. The human condition and the Christian’s realization that this world is not there home gives even the darker things in life a more eternal perspective.
the biggest Christian radio hit is “Gone.” The song about the world’s fleeting and fading desires shows a more humorous lyrical approach than anything the band has ever embraced.The monster hook sounds like it could have been written by Toby Mac (and i mean that in a really good way). The final chorus is a list of things that will fade and disappear that includes money, sex, drugs, technology, fame and Al pacino’s cash. The final fade also contains a nod to Bono wondering if life was still worth living.
The beautiful and haunting “On Fire” is somewhat of an odd song. When I relate my favorite songs from the album this song never comes to mind. but every time I listen to the album it just moves and stuns me. It is brilliant, beautiful and compelling.
Returning to the more aggressive rock sound that permeating the first half of the disc, “Adding to the Noise” is a song that sounds like it was written to be a hit, yet it was never released as a single. Great guitar riff that tips hits hat to the Knack while standing firmly in the 2000’s.
The album closes with the wonderful and unforgettable “Twenty-Four.” I have never tired of this song in 8 years of listening to it. Here we have foreman at his best, traversing a musical and vocal landscape the rest of the album never breaches. Nearly worshipful, Foreman moves from Psalmist to Rocker with aplomb. It is really a beautiful melody and amazing vocal performance that could have lasted three more minutes with no editing needed. It is also a fitting close to this amazing project.
What other Switchfoot albums only hinted at finally found fulfillment in “The Beautiful Letdown.” It is not very often that commercial and sensible rock is so compelling, lasting and moving. There is no letdown here and it should remain a classic in a genre lacking in many that qualify.