It has been 40 years since Queen released their definitive masterwork A Night at the Opera, and the world of rock has never looked quite the same. With the album reaching its 40th anniversary last week, I decided it would be a great time to dive into what is arguably my personal favorite rock album of all time.
The album opens on a viciously cathartic note with “Death on Two Legs,” allegedly lead singer Freddie Mercury’s hate letter toward Queen’s ex-manager. It could also just be seen as a really nasty ode to an ex-friend or lover (the male references throughout would even be keeping in line with Mercury’s homosexuality). Musically, it’s about as epic an opening as you could ask for. The melding of the piano with electronic beeps shows off the blend of old and new the band proved so adept at. Mercury’s voice drops in with an angry growl and doesn’t let up. And check out some of these lyric lines: “now you can kiss my ass goodbye.” “You’re a sewer rat encased in a cesspool of pride.” It’s a brutally efficient little number.
“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” provides an immediate and jarring tonal shift, but don’t let the frivolous nature of the subject matter fool you—this is one brilliant little one-minute track. I love Mercury’s deliberately British-sounding vocals and Brian May’s lean guitar solo.
“I’m in Love with My Car” is the album’s most traditional-sounding rock song, with drummer Roger Taylor on vocals. His voice is raspier and more in line with a rock star than Mercury’s more theatrical sensibilities, and it’s a nice change of pace. Of course, the always on-point background harmonies still remind us that this is very much a Queen sound. The title obviously implies the content of the song, but I like the clever rhymes in lines like “Tell my girl I’ve got to forget her/I’d rather buy me a new carburetor.”
One of the most well-known and affecting songs from the album is “You’re my Best Friend,” Mercury’s sweet, sincere song about commitment. It’s an awesome feel-good song, one that reminds us to appreciate the loved ones we have in our own lives. Of course, there are some truly great vocal harmonies on display, and Mercury’s smooth, whispered “ohs” at the end of the track are simply infectious.
A song like ’39 begins to display the album’s epic tones as well as Queen’s penchant for grandiosity. The lyrics, sung by Brian May, are apparently about space travel. A group of astronauts embark on a year-long journey but return to find out 100 years have passed on earth time. The acoustic guitar work in the song is unique, and the lyrics invite contemplation. “Don’t you hear my call, though you’re many years away/Don’t you hear me calling you?”
“Sweet Lady” is the song that best shows off the band’s instrumental mastery. It features an incredible variety of rhythm and sound, starting in ¾ meter before switching to a lightning-fast 4/4. It really rocks, and what’s even more impressive is how effortless it all feels.
“Seaside Rendezvous” offers a switch back to Queen’s operatic mode, and the result is just insanely good. Taylor and Mercury’s vocals imitate instruments including a trumpet, clarinet, tuba and kazoo. It’s pretty mind-blowing stuff, and honestly sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s a tough one to describe, but it’s easily an album highlight.
It may be hard to imagine, but there is a song on A Night at the Opera that rivals “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “The Prophet’s Song” is it. It’s a candidate for most epic rock song ever recorded, as well as for my personal favorite. It’s a dark, long (over 8 minutes) and challenging work, speaking of dreams and prophecies and doom. “Oh, flee for your life/Deceive you not the fires of hell will take you/Should death await you.” The vocal round in the middle of the song is the true highlight, combined with an echo effect that is one of the coolest vocal tricks I’ve ever heard. It’s positively goosebump-inducing. The harmonic layering here is indescribably perfect. Thankfully, May’s guitar still has some room to wail here as well. The song ends on a more hopeful refrain (“Love is still the answer take my hand”) before its subtle and haunting denouement. If there’s such a thing as a perfect song, this is it.
*Note: Below is a really weird live recording that sounds totally different but is still pretty awesome.
“Love of my Life” is much softer but no less effective. Mercury’s beautiful, haunting, melancholic voice breaks with emotion. Bolstered by a melodic theatrical piano background, he strikes that brilliant and tricky balance between vulnerable and powerful as he sings about a love scorned, yet one he hopes to restore. It’s the kind of song Adele makes today. She certainly owes a debt of gratitude to songs like this.
“Good Company” is a clever song that recreates the sound of a Dixieland-style jazz band. May sings and plays ukulele. The odd lyrics seem to describe a man who comes across various people in his life but in the end discovers they were all imaginary. Songs like this once again show off the band’s immense variety and range.
And now we reach the granddaddy of all rock songs. What more is there to say about “Bohemian Rhapsody” that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes I wonder if the song has been spoiled by its perennial overplayed status on radio stations across the globe. Somehow, the answer to that question is always “no.” One does not simply tire of this song, ever. The song follows a man’s rumination on death row after having committed murder. The man expresses intense remorse as he sings to his mother. “life had just begun/but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” As he comforts her, he seems at first to accept his fate, but the chorus intercedes; some ask for mercy from the judge, while others condemn him. This one song contains more variety and emotion than 100 entire modern pop albums. There’s the chaotic call-and-response that echoes the narrator’s steadily decreasing sanity (“Mama mia let me go!”). He then turns to rage as the song kicks into rock mode with May’s legendary guitar solo. “So you think you can love me and leave me to die?” The narrator’s inner turmoil and back-and-forth emotional state is absolutely thrilling, but his bleak conclusion is still the same. “Nothing really matters, anyone can see/Nothing really matters to me.”
Oddly, the song ends with an efficient, short guitar interlude of “God Save the Queen.” It’s a nice, quiet ending to an album that is anything but.
A Night at the Opera is one of the most thrilling albums ever crafted. To call it Queen’s best work is to imply that there’s a runner-up somewhere in the vicinity. But this bad boy is in a league all its own. Iconic, both grandly ambitious and achingly intimate, it’s at obviously overblown and self-aggrandizing work. Queen was smart enough to only announce they were the best in the business if it were actually true. This album is proof enough that they most certainly were.
Sam Mendes is no stranger to risks. The veteran filmmaker took a huge gamble directing Skyfall, a bold revisionist take on Ian Flemings’ ever-popular spy character James Bond. That film, the third in the long-running franchise to feature star Daniel Craig, proved that risks can pay off. It was easily one of the most critically acclaimed and financially successful films in the history of the Bond franchise.
Skyfall is an integral part of the discussion surrounding the new 007 film Spectre, which reunites Mendes with star Craig and screenwriters John Logan and Neil Purvis. With a few exceptions, the 26th outing of the british spy takes an almost completely opposite approach. This is a very traditional Bond film, one that features numerous callbacks to the franchise’s past while doing practically nothing to ensure its future or carve out an identity of its own. The result is severely underwhelming.
In a stunning extended-shot opening sequence, we find Bond in Mexico City during a large Day of the Dead celebration. It initially appears he’s there for revelry, but, as usual, there’s a large plan afoot. He ditches his typically beautiful arm candy to hunt down a Mexican drug lord he believes is part of a shadowy organization called Spectre, which appears to be responsible for a series of terrorist attacks across the globe. After promptly disposing of the baddie, he infiltrates the organization in an attempt to gain access to its leader, the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz).
Meanwhile, Bond’s MI6 cohorts back in Britain are facing bureaucratic struggles. The newly appointed M (Ralph Finnes) butts heads with his new superior, the hard-headed C (Andrew Scott), who seeks to demolish the antiquated 007 program and replace it with a more computerized, futuristic version of spy technology. Returning MI6 members Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are forced to support Bond’s globetrotting antics in secret, under the nose of their boss.
The returning characters are all a delight; it certainly helps that they’re played by wonderful actors, and actually given something to do. Harris in particular is my favorite version of Moneypenny; she’s strong, independent, and written to be so much more than eye candy. The new characters are intriguing but ultimately less satisfying. They include two new Bond girls, one old (Monica Bellucci’s Lucia), one young (Léa Seydoux’s Madeline Swan) and henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista), who recalls many classic burly Bond baddies, most readily the iconic Jaws.
Spectre is a dreary experience that does little to enliven the Bond franchise formula.
In the film’s antiquated gender politics, women like Lucia are tossed aside as sex objects. I’m not really the one to complain about such things in a James Bond film, but when a character is set up as being important to the plot in some form, it’s disappointing when she ends up simply existing for Bond’s momentary pleasure. Swan is thankfully given much more development; she and Bond fall in love, a love they say is true and real. But we’re given so much less to work with than the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale that it’s hard to take seriously. It is refreshing to see Bond truly taking an interest in protecting someone, even at the risk of his own life, rather than using her simply for sex.
Spectre is even more deliberately paced than Skyfall. This movie is slow; I’d go so far as to call it a drag. I certainly don’t need my Bond film to be action-packed; Casino Royale’s extended poker sequence comes to mind. But when everything feels as low-stakes as it does here, the emotional impact of the quieter scenes is weakened. There’s nothing here that gets the heart racing; the action sequences, minus one memorable fight on a train, feel as sleepy and devoid of genuine drama as the rest of the film. Part of the problem may be the film’s cinematography, which features tons of drab beiges and blacks. Roger Deakins’ magnetic presence, which made every scene of Skyfall sing, is sorely missed here. The other issue is the film’s almost slavish devotion to formula: aerial fight sequence, sex scene, car chase, quiet scene of dialogue to give the audience a breather, train fight, other sex scene, torture scene, etc. When we can almost predict every scene, the pacing loses much of its impact.
With a cast and crew this talented, there are bound to be some pros to a film like Spectre. The story is quite good; it brings the Craig era of the franchise full-circle and sets up Spectre as the proper evil organization Bond fans love to hate. The way it manages to tie everything together is satisfying on a plot level.
Thank God for Christoph Waltz. The actor, who has already won two Oscars, can seem to do no wrong. He absolutely steals every scene he’s in; the rapport between him and Bond is absolutely electric. He strikes the perfect balance between charming and menacing that many felt had been missing from recent Bond films. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of him, but he manages to almost single-handedly enliven the final third of the film.
Unfortunately you have to slog through the rest of the film to get to the good stuff. And what a slog it is. Spectre is a dull and dreary experience of interminable length. Nothing is outright bad here, but nothing grips you either. Longtime franchise fans will likely get a lot out of the film’s numerous throwbacks and intriguing story, but everyone else may be scratching their heads wondering where it all went wrong.
A few weeks ago, I got to see indie rock musician Jon Foreman, the front man for the band Switchfoot, in concert. This led me to contemplate the many marvelous albums from my favorite band, and, like I did with U2 earlier this year, I decided to listen to them all and rank them. Switchfoot’s music is the kind that could literally save your life; words can’t adequately describe the impact their music has had on me since I was a kid. It’s the kind of music that makes me want to be a better person, that reminds me of my obligation to God and to others, and that love is the highest law of the land. Not to mention that their music flat-out rocks (and their music video’s are great goofy fun). Jon’s soulful vocals and guitar playing are backed by his brother Tim on bass, Chad Butler on drums and Jerome Fontamillas on keyboard as well as background guitar and vocals. Throughout their nearly 20-year existence, the band has amassed a formidable catalogue of seriously great music. All of it is worth listening to. Without further ado, here is every Switchfoot album, ranked.
There is no such thing as a bad Switchfoot album, but there is such a thing as a disappointing one. This is it. Made toward the middle of the band’s career, Oh! Gravity finds the band trying to maintain their identity while simultaneously reinventing themselves. The result is a bit of a jumble; the songwriting is murkier than the band’s usual efforts and the themes are less clear and more inconsistent.
The excellent title song asks, “Why can’t we seem to keep it together?” lamenting the difficulty of keeping sane in a chaotic culture. The band’s penchant for scathing cultural critique is in full force with “American Dream,” where “excess is equated with excess.” “I want out of this machine,” Foreman sings. “It doesn’t feel like freedom to me.” The chaos tone of the album continues with “Dirty Second Hands,” which recalls the grungier sound of the band’s earlier work. “Awakening” is one of my favorite Switchfoot songs, a cry out for meaning and purpose. “I wanna wake up kicking and screaming/I wanna know that my heart’s still beating.” “Circles” is a deeper expression of inner chaos that still desires to hold on to truth. “Don’t believe that nothing is true. Don’t believe in this modern machine.”
“Amateur Lovers” describes the disease of “insufficiency of love.” “Faust, Midas and Myself” finds the band at its most metaphorical, which the band normally trades in brilliantly. This feels a bit too artsty though, and the result is unclear and unsatisfying. The same can be said for “In This Life.” I do like “Yesterday,” a softer song that feels like a goodbye song. “Burn out Bright” is another cry to restore passion. “Before I die I wanna burn out bright.” “4:12” is another interesting experiment, a song that is literally 4 minutes and 12 seconds. These kinds of gimmicks don’t make good songs on their own, however. “Let your Love be Strong” is a typical exhortation from Foreman to put love first. “Maybe I’m optimistic…that love could be a verb.”
Oh! Gravity has its share of excellence, but it’s balanced by some more forgettable tracks, and the album as a whole doesn’t come together in the way the band’s best work does.
The Legend of Chin
The band’s debut album only suffers in comparison to their later work. On its own merits, The Legend of Chin is a remarkable debut. Switchfoot’s early sound was much grungier, Foreman’s voice a bit rougher around the edges. Their mastery of creative instrumentation and sonic variety was also more pronounced here than on later records. Even the lyrics were more playful, closer in style to contemporaries like Reliant K, as in the song “Chem 6A.” “I don’t wanna read the book/I’ll watch the movie.” “Underwater” is an emotional song about a girl adrift, perhaps in alcohol, or just apathy. The serious subject matter still makes way for a jazzy piano interlude. “Edge of My Seat” continues the album’s creative sound with trumpet accompaniment. “Home” is an album highlight about finding rest in the hope of heaven while praising the grandness of creation. “Someday I’ll see home.” “Ben Hur” shows off Foreman’s lyrical trickery and pop cultural savviness, but “Concrete Girl” is likely the album’s most affecting song. Foreman’s voice shows its vulnerability as he encourages a girl to find the purpose behind the artifice she sees all around her. “Concrete Girl, don’t fall down/In this broken world around you.”
“3/4 Chant,” perhaps obviously, plays creatively with ¾ time. “You” is about resting in God rather than ourselves and our own abilities. “I find peace when I’m confused/I find hope when I’m let down.” “Ode to Chin” encourages the listener to “doubt your doubts/And believe your beliefs.”
The Legend of Chin is a fun and creative debut album, a signifier of greater things to come from an immensely talented group of musicians.
New Way to Be Human
The theme of New Way to Be Human seems to be transformation, and the album does a remarkable job of echoing that theme through the songs themselves, which display a pretty incredible variety. The great-sounding title track features immensely catchy whistling as Foreman sings about “a new way to be human,” which he later reveals is God. “You’re the only way to be human.” “Incomplete” encourages us to accept our weaknesses and allow God to make us whole. “Sooner or Later” reminds us that “sooner or later you find out there’s a hole in the wall.” We’re perfectly happy with life until something goes wrong, then we wonder what has happened. “Have I lost who I am? I threw it all away.” “Company Car” is one of my favorite Switchfoot song; a great sound featuring trumpet accompaniment is bolstered by a cautionary tale reminding us that man can’t serve two masters. The subject has everything he wants, including money, but he ultimately asks, “Have I won monopoly but forfeit my soul?” “Only Hope” is another of my favorite songs, a beautiful ode to searching, longing, reaching out and ultimately finding rest in God. Foreman’s voice rises along with his journey of discovery. “So I lay my head back down/And I lift my hands and pray to be only yours/I know now you’re my only hope.” “I Turn Everything Over” is similarly about giving things over to God. “Under the Floor” is a haunting closer about listening for God as he whispers in the quiet, intimate spaces of our lives.
New Way to Be Human proved that The Legend of Chin was no fluke. This is a confident, assured follow-up, with emotional, stirring tracks. You can sense a lot of grand, epic themes that would be perfected in later albums, but that doesn’t make what’s here any less great.
Fading West is an excellent album, but it suffers in comparison to some of its stellar contemporaries. Still, the album that functioned as a soundtrack to Switchfoot’s must-see surfing documentary of the same title is filled with soulful tracks. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight” establishes the album’s epic tone, and is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s recurring theme that love is the most powerful motivator we have. “Who We Are” is a generational chant featuring a children’s choir, a unique sound for the band. “There’s still time enough to choose who we are.” “When We Come Alive” is another one of my personal favorites, an extremely haunting track about living a life of passion and the way that comes to life in community. “We light the sky when we ignite/When we come alive.” “Say it Like You Mean It” seeks honest words in a politically correct culture. “The World You Want” is another haunting track, featuring tribal drums and Foreman reminding us that the world will be what we make of it. This leads to one of my favorite lyrical refrains that we all have something we worship. “What you say is your religion/How you say it’s your religion/Who you love is your religion/How you love is your religion.”
“Slipping Away” repeats an album theme of reflecting on the past and feeling the past leaving us. “BA55” jolts the album back into harder rock territory with a dark, arresting sound, searching again for that passion, that “fire that can burn me clean.” “Let It Out” is another powerful anthem song about letting things go and not fearing others’ opinions. “All or Nothing At All” encourages us to embrace the whole person—either ourselves or someone else—rather than simply the parts we don’t like, the same way God embraces us. “Salwater Heart” uses the ocean as a metaphor for God’s vastness. “Back to the Beginning Again” ends what is arguably the band’s most hopeful album by seeking a revival and going back to the foundation. “My hope is anchored on the other side/with the colors that live outside of the lines.”
Nothing Is Sound
To call an album like Nothing is Sound ambitious is an understatement. This is Switchfoot embracing their true status as a rock band and claiming that they could tackle grand themes like the vastness of the universe, the afterlife, sex and politics. The most impressive thing about the album is that they were right.
“Lonely Nation” establishes a darker, more epic sound for the band. The song decries the isolation we often feel in an individualistic society. “Stars” may be the band’s single most epic song, contemplating the majesty of God while looking up at the heavens. The singer feels emptiness and loneliness, until he looks at the stars and sees “someone else.” But this someone else deeply affects the singer. “When I look at the stars, I feel like myself.” The song was immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why. A radio-friendly rock song that feels both epic and intimate at once is a very rare thing. “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” is another one of my favorites, showing how we can often shine when things are darkest. Forman evokes the Psalms when he sings “Oh Lord, why did you forsake me? Or Lord, don’t be far away.” But he doesn’t stay in despair; he asks God to “let my shadows prove the sunshine.” “Easier Than Love” calls out our sex-obsessed culture. Sex is “easier than love,” and we often focus on it to the detriment of love. “The Blues” shows again how vulnerable Foreman’s voice can be; he’s willing to let his voice break. The song is about feeling down, but it cleverly has a bluesy sound as well (Fontamillias’ piano playing is particularly noteworthy here).
“Setting Sun” is a beautiful reflection on the hope of heaven. “Politicians” is another rock out song, not only a scathing critique of the fakery often inherent in politics but also how we all have become politicians, putting on our best face but unwilling to show our true colors to the world. “Fatal Wound” shows off some creative instrumentation with a killer harmonica part. “We Are One Tonight” is a great anthem song about casting aside conflict and coming together. The album ends on an unexpectedly soft note with “Daisy,” a song encouraging a girl to “let it go.” “This fallen world doesn’t hold your interest; it doesn’t hold your soul.”
Nothing is Sound executes that tricky balance of intimate and epic perfectly. It showed that the band could tackle almost any subject and spin gold out of it. The total effect is actually a bit exhausting, which is perhaps the reason why this album doesn’t rank higher. Still, it’s exhilarating stuff.
Learning to Breathe
Switchfoot’s third album was the first I ever heard, at age 10. It holds a special place in my heart, because it had a profound effect on me. It was also the first album to show the band was more than ready for the mainstream.
It’s pretty safe to say that “I Dare You to Move” is the band’s most popular song ever. I doubt few people who turned on a radio station in the early 2000s didn’t hear it at some point (it was also one of several Switchfoot songs featured in the popular film A Walk to Remember). It more than earned its status as a classic song. The lyrics encourage perseverance through hardship and rejecting apathy, and Foreman’s vocals feel particularly haunting here. “Learning to Breathe” is an arresting song about trying to live a life of authenticity, and that such authenticity comes through our day-to-day decisions. “Love is the Movement” is a strong candidate for my favorite Switchfoot song ever. It’s an epic treatise on the transformative power of love, with a gospel chorus accompaniment. Here, love is much more than a feeling, it is something that necessitates action. “Love is the movement/Love is the revolution/This is redemption/We don’t have to slow back down…Get up/Love is moving you now.” “Poparazzi” is a catchy song about the shallowness of celebrity pop culture. The cult of celebrity is driven home through lyrics that conjure religious imagery like “This is a tune for the graven images of Marilyn Monroe.” The ending ends in cacophony, echoing the way our culture often sounds when everyone is trying to speak at once.
“Innocence Again” highlights some great acoustic work, and the brilliant way Foreman matches his voice to the lyrics. When singing the lyrics “Grace is high and low,” his vocals rise and fall accordingly. In “Losers,” Foreman sings about how, in God’s eyes, the losers are the winners. “Economy of Mercy” similarly turns things on its head; in God’s economy, the low are brought high through “the currency of grace.” “Erosion” expresses a desire for revival. “Spirit fall like rain on my thirsty soul.” “Living is Simple” sets up a contrast between living in the body and living in the spirit. “Is this fiction or divine comedy/Where the last of the last is first?”
Learning to Breathe is an important album, an encouragement to live boldly and reject apathy as we seek God and navigate the waters of this world. It’s also just plain fun, with several radio-friendly hits that have some real substance to back up their popularity.
The Beautiful Letdown
Now we’re talking. If Learning to Breathe proved that Switchfoot could play in the big leagues, The Beautiful Letdown showed the world that they were one of the best bands around. It’s an absolute stunner, one that took many of the band’s previous themes and codified them into a near-perfect album. The boys come out of the gate swinging with “Meant to Live,” an anthem song about living a greater purpose. “We want more than this world’s got to offer,” Foreman sings with a new found power he hadn’t shown before. “This is Your Life” asks listeners to examine their own lives. Are we living our greatest purpose now? “This is your life, and today is all you’ve got now/And today is all you’ll ever have.” “More Than Just Okay” continues the theme, emphasizing challenge and growth over stagnation. Chad Butler’s drumming really kicks on “Ammunition,” which calls out our culture of blaming. “Look What a Mess We’ve Made of Love” as a result of the verbal bullets we sling at each other. In “Alive,” Forman sings, “My fears have worn me out.” He seeks life, and finds it in Christ. “His scars are bigger than these doubts of mine.”
“The Beautiful Letdown” features a killer bassline from Tim Foreman, which gives the song a unique, laid back groove. The lyrics discuss embracing failure, for God can use us even at our weakest. I love the line, “The church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools.” “Gone” is another one of my favorites, encouraging the listener to let go of the things of this world. “Where’s your treasure, where’s your hope/If you get the world and lose your soul?” We only have so many days to make an impact, so let’s use them wisely, because “life is a day that doesn’t last for long.” “Fire” is a beautiful song about the passion God can spark in us. “You’re on fire when he’s near you/You’re on fire when he speaks/You’re on fire burning up in these mysteries.” “Adding to the Noise” seeks silence in a noisy world, aka “the symphony of modern man.” “Twenty-Four” is a brilliant closing track about how quickly life can change, capped by the powerful refrain “I am the second man now/When you’re raising the dead in me.” This lyric works on multiple levels. The second man may be referring to putting ourselves second to God, but it could also mean a new man, a born again man. Risen to life in Christ, a new man has taken the old man’s place.
Masterful lyrics like that are all over this album, which doesn’t really miss a beat. One could be forgiven for thinking Switchfoot would never make a better album, which is one of the reasons why what comes next is so extraordinary.
Hello Hurricane is an album that leaves me speechless every time I hear it. It’s a beautiful, soulful meditation on hope in the midst of pain, and a reminder that God can use us even in our weakness. “Needle and Haystack Life” introduces an epic, sophisticated tone that is unlike anything we’ve heard from the band previously. The searching lyrics complement the arresting sound perfectly. The album quickly veers into hard rock territory with the propulsive “Mess of Me,” a song that reminds us that we can’t fix ourselves on our own. “There ain’t no drug that they could sell/There ain’t no drug to make me well…The sickness is myself.” “Love is a Song” is a highlight on an album of highlights. In poetic language, it describes the all-encompassing nature of God’s love as a work of art. “Your love is a symphony/All around me, running through me/Your love is a melody, underneath me, running to me.” “The Sound” is, simply, a kick ass song, one that gives the band plenty of chances to show off. Foreman’s voice has never shown more raw power, and his guitar solo reminds us of his serious axe skills. The lyrics are a generational call, reminding us that “there is no sound louder than love.” We hear the other side of Foreman’s vocal range on “Enough to Let Me Go,” a vulnerable song about, well, knowing when to let someone go. “Free” is a more aggressive song about yearning for freedom from “the prisons of my mind.”
“Hello Hurricane” uses a metaphor of a storm for hardship, and is all about not letting these storms knock us down. “Hello Hurricane, you’re not enough…you can’t silence my love.” “Always” is a passionate song about clinging to hope when everything is falling apart. The epic string accompaniment really drives this one home. “Bullet Soul” is another rock-out song, one I remember being featured in movie trailers after the song came out. It’s all about injecting passion into life. “Love is the one true innovation/Love is the only art.” “Yet” is a moving song about holding onto faith through hardship. “I’m so confused what’s true what’s false/What’s fact or fiction after all…but you haven’t lost me yet.” The song also features one of my favorite lyric lines: “If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love.” “Sing it Out” is one of the band’s most haunting songs, asking God to allow our weakness to speak when nothing else can. “Take what is left of me…make it a melody…I need your breath in my lungs tonight.” “Red Eyes” conveys the desperation of looking, exhausted, for something greater. That exhaustion comes from searching for things that don’t ultimately satisfy. The album leaves us with a question: “What are you looking for?”
This is the kind of album that could save lives. I know it has certainly gotten me through tough times. We all need an occasional reminder that our lives are not meaningless, that there’s a higher purpose to our lives and to the universe as a whole. We shouldn’t fear weakness, for it is in our moments of vulnerability or desperation that our true colors can shine, if we allow them to. That’s an important message, and this is an important album, not to mention impeccably crafted and just plain impressive. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Switchfoot could never make an album that could surpass Hello Hurricane, but you would be wrong. I know I was. In this case, I’m glad I was. If the band’s previous revolutionary effort was about how to be strong in the middle of our weakness, Vice Verses is a reminder that we don’t have to stay in that space. Life is a truly joyful thing to be celebrated.
That embrace of living a full, purposeful life is driven home on the opening track, “Afterlife.” “I wonder why would I wait ‘til I die to come alive?/I’m ready now, I’m not waiting for the afterlife.” The song really kicks, and reveals the band at their peak maturity and sophistication. “Original” features a different lyrical style for Foreman, closer to a rap or a shout. It would get old if overused, but it works here, especially when the song’s theme is about embracing your uniqueness in a world that wants to homogenize you. “War Inside” is a grungy, electric tune about dealing with inner conflict. “Every fight comes from the fight within.” “Restless” is a moving ode to the singer’s tireless pursuit of God. “I run like the ocean to find your shore, looking for you.” There’s a distinct U2/”Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” vibe here, undoubtedly one of Switchfoot’s major influence. The song earns that comparison; it’s that good. The lyrics of “Blinding Light” encourage an unnamed boy and girl to avoid giving into peer pressure or the temptation to fit into society’s standards of beauty or coolness. “We’re the nation that eats our youth.” The kids are asked to hold onto the hope that transcends those standards. “Still looking for the blinding light/Still looking for the reason why.” “Selling the News” brings back the band’s scathing cultural criticism, this time tackling not only the news media but a culture all too willing to exchange the truth for lies. It sort of like a modern version of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” but this song is more layered and nuanced. “Opinions are easier to swallow the facts…The fact is fiction/Suspicion is a new religion.”
“Thrive” may actually be my favorite Switchfoot song. A subtle, soothing bassline plays over Foreman’s agonized vocals. Here is a broken man, airing out his demons and desiring to live life to the fullest. There’s a distinct biblical Psalm vibe here, where criticisms directed toward God are leveraged with prayers. “Am I a man when I feel like a ghost?…I know that I’m not right…I wanna thrive, not just survive.” It’s an incredibly powerful encouragement to anyone experiencing a dark valley of the soul. “Dark Horses” is perhaps the band’s most successful anthem song, with a bit of an epic Bon Jovi vibe. The lyrics see the dark horses as those who won’t give up even when society has given up on them. “Hey, you can’t count us out/We’ve been running up against the crowd/Yeah, we are the dark horses.” “Souvenirs” is a song about looking back upon a life and seeing all the little moments that brought the singer to where he is now. It’s an inspiring celebration of life, both the good and the bad. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“Rise Above It” shows off Foreman’s penchant for creative rhyming, with lyrics that talk about lifting ourselves above our circumstances. “Vice Verses” is a self-reflective, acoustic track, featuring only Foreman’s vocals and guitar. This feels closer to his actual solo work, as the singer looks out at the ocean while thinking about perspective. The singer is not an optimist or pessimist, but simply a realist. “You’ve got your babies, I’ve got my hearses/Every blessing comes with a set of curses/I’ve got my vices, got my vice verses.” The singer also asks some very Job-esque questions of God. “Where is God in the city life? Where is God in the earthquake? Where is God in the genocide?…Everything feels rusted over/Tell me that you’re there.” “Where I Belong” closes the album by expressing loss and displacement in a world which is not truly home. “I’m not sentimental/This skin and bones is a rental/And no one makes it out alive.” The singer sees a greater home, “Where the weak are finally strong/Where the righteous right the wrongs.” It’s a moving end to a moving record.
Vice Verses is literally breathtaking. As in, I find myself short of breath after I listen to it through. The songs here run the gamut of human emotions, and always leave me with a desire to live my true purpose. It’s a dark album that tackles heavy issues head-on, but the overall tone is one of hope. With God on the throne, what do we truly have to fear? It’s one of my favorite albums, period.