Switchfoot has been in decline since their major-label debut, The Beautiful Letdown. That album was originally recorded independently, then remixed once Columbia Records signed the band. Each successive album has been recorded under the auspices of Columbia/Sony, but while they’ve been commercially successful, I’ve liked each less than the one before. There were some great songs, one or two per album, but the albums disappointed me. Being dropped by Sony seems to have reinvigorated the band, as the independently-recorded Hello Hurricane reminds me why I love Switchfoot.
On the Hello Hurricane tour, each show starts with the twelve songs from the album played in order. As lead singer Jon Foreman joked at the House of Blues in Dallas, Texas, “Our opening act is Hello Hurricane, then Switchfoot will be up later.” The structure of the album makes it work, since the last song, “Red Eyes,” reprises some lyrics from the first song, “Needle and Haystack Life,” and several other songs seem to be related to each other.
The songs seem to go in several different directions, musically, with rock hooks in some songs, and anthemic chorus in others, with a few odd instruments brought in for variety. They’re touring with a mandolin, accordion, and plenty of percussion.
No Switchfoot album is perfect, even The Beautiful Letdown, so let’s take a look at each track.
“Needle and Haystack Life” is about love, and life. Possibly sung to a newborn baby girl, or maybe just to the love of his life, it suggests that finding love is miraculous, not accidental, and worth fighting for. It sets a tone for the mellower songs on the disc. In this needle and haystack life / I found miracles there in your eyes / It’s no accident we’re here tonight / We are once in a lifetime
“Mess of Me” is a declaration of failure, and the song with The Hook for the album. It’s the first single, with video and Jimmy Kimmel performance to back it up. I’ve made a mess of me / I want to reverse this tragedy / I’ve made a mess of me / I want to spend the rest of my life alive
“Your Love Is A Song” switches back to more mellow territory. It was introduced at the concert I attended earlier this week with: “I write songs about things I don’t understand very well, namely God and girls. This is a song about grace.” Oh, your love is a symphony / All around me / Running through me // Oh, your love is a melody / Underneath me / Running to me // Your love is a song
“The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues)” brings up the rock level again, and was written while Jon was reading Let Justice Roll Down by John M. Perkins. It didn’t start as one of my favorite songs, but it’s growing on me. The static comes alive / Beneath the broken skies / John Perkins said it right / Love is the final fight
“Enough To Let Me Go” is about love as give and take, rather than consumption. Breathe it in and let it go / Every breath you take is not yours to own / It’s not yours to hold / Do you love me enough to let me go?
“Free” has another rock hook, though it’s somewhat of a rock anthem, an interesting combination. It may be the only way to break the album’s pattern: soft, hard, soft, hard, soft, both! Jon describes it as the brother of “Mess of Me.” Free / Come set me free / Down on my knees / I still believe / You could save me from me // Come set me free / Come set me free // Inside this shell there’s a prison cell
“Hello Hurricane” is a song that could easily be taken “the wrong way.” I shy away from inviting calamity into my life, since I figure there’s enough calamity in life already. I think the focus of this song, though, seems to be more on one aspect of the preparation: Everything I have I count as loss / Everything I have is stripped away / Before I started building / I counted up these costs / There’s nothing left for you to take away
“Always” has three parts. There’s birth, full of hope and promise. There’s life, with pain and brokenness and scars. Then comes the hallelujah: redemption. There’s always redemption. Hallelujah, I’m caving in / Hallelujah, I’m in love again / Hallelujah, I’m a wretched man / Hallelujah, every breath is a second chance
“Bullet Soul” is another not-favorite of mine, but a rocking crowd-pleaser. You’re a kid with a bullet soul / Are you ready to go?
“Yet” still rips me up every time I listen to it. What can you say when everything you do, and everything you are, and everything you try, fails? Just sing until your heart caves in. I want to quote the entire song, but I’ll stick with the bridge: If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love / No, if it doesn’t break your heart it’s not enough / It’s when you’re breaking down with your insides coming out / It’s when you find out what your heart is made of
“Sing It Out” is a prayer on the same theme. Sing it out / Sing it out / Take what is left of me / Make it a melody
“Red Eyes” brings the beginning of the album back around to the end, with a reprise of some lines from “Needle and Haystack Life.” Holding on, holding on / With red eyes / What are you looking for? / With red eyes / Red eyes
Jon’s comments on the song seem relevant, and help to explain much of the rest of the album as well.
“So here we are at the end of the world. And the beginning. Here we are at the dawn of the next generation. Y2K has passed us by. MLK, Kennedy, Elvis, Lennon, Cobain, MJ… they have all left the living. They have left us searching, wondering, hoping… I read the headlines, I watch the news. Iraq, Rwanda, Iran, Darfur, Tibet, Columbine, OKC… Towers falling, mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers… passing from life to death. We’re killing one another, destroying each other. Sometimes the state of the world can bring a man to his knees. It could make you cry. I get angry. I get overwhelmed. I give up… almost. Sometimes, I find myself staring into a blood red dawn, still awake from the night before. Still wondering why this new day has so much of the old darkness, the old sorrows, the old hatred. I feel so alone. I feel so alone in this world of pain.
All my heroes are the ones who ran after the higher vision, the news that stays new. We’ve been chasing lesser gods, gods who do not know our names, gods who will die alongside of us. The kingdom of the heavens does not come to us in our wealth, it comes to our in our poverty. Our money, our knowledge, our medicine, our sex, our privilege- these are double-edged swords, dependent upon our own shaking hands for guidance. With our two hands we build up and destroy, we hold and break the future. My own hands are shaking. I reach for the new day with fear and trembling. I’m reaching for a bird called hope, for the one true song who could bring me home. I’m waiting for dawn. I’m dreaming, reaching for the other side.
At the end of the record there is a reprise that goes back to the first song. For me this is a reminder of the repetitive nature of all that we call life. Wonder, surrender, joy, forgiveness, hope- yes, give us today the daily bread of our moment by moment existence. This life is so fragile- at any instance one of us could slip beyond this life into the infinite unknown. It’s as though every breath we take has been given to us on loan. We are surrounded by mysteries, miracles, wonders, and tragedies that we will never master. Yes, I will die one day- of this I am certain. But I’m not dead yet! No, tonight there is breath in my lungs- pushing, pulsing, yearning to break free… I will dream, for dreams are the seeds of what may be. I will wonder, for without wonder, how could life be wonderful? And I will sing.
Yes, until my pending death I will sing. In the face of indifference, I will sing. In the face of adversity, I will sing. I will sing about the pain. I will sing about the mystery. I will sing of the hope, the cage, the bullet, the winter, the dreamer. I will sing of all of these. I’ve seen miracles there in your eyes. It’s no accident we’re here tonight. We are once in a lifetime.”
After dozens of listens, and a live show earlier this week, I still don’t think this is quite their best album. I do think it’s very close to the high mark set by The Beautiful Letdown, and it definitely signals that Switchfoot is back.