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NOTHING IS SOUND (2005)
Nothing Is Sound - Click to view! It's no easy feat. Just ask Fleetwood Mac. Or Def Leppard. Or even Bruce Springsteen. Each of these artists are all too familiar with the daunting task of following a career-defining album (Rumours, Hysteria and Born in the U.S.A., for those keeping score) with one of equal or greater magnitude. All of this is, of course, old news to Switchfoot songwriters Jon and Tim Foreman, who, along with drummer Chad Butler and multi-instrumentalist Jerome Fontamillas, released The Beautiful Letdown in early 2003. That record, as most who listen to Christian pop already know, was the one that plucked the band from the Christian pop niche market and set it down it squarely in the middle of the mainstream, pulling down Top 20 honors on the Billboard Hot 200, a pair of gold singles, sales of over two million units and a deal with Columbia Records in the process.

Because of the band's extended tour for the Letdown album, the lion's share of Nothing Is Sound was written on the road. True to the circumstances surrounding their creation, cuts like "Lonely Nation," and the similarly impressive "Stars" and "Happy Is a Yuppie Word," are fitted with rousing, crowd-friendly rhythms, towering bass lines, plenty of sludgy, drop-tuned guitars and hooks enough for a store full of winter coats. Shimmering, pop-inclined tracks like "We are One Tonight" and "Golden" appear equally likely to roust even the most passive of concert goers from their seated positions. The laid back, slightly Beatlesque strains of "The Blues" will set those same listeners swaying enthusiastically in time to its loping, piano-driven melody. And the moving, acoustically-based album closer, "Daisy," is sure to fill arenas everywhere with raised cigarette lighters, camera phones and hands.

For all of its musical zest, Sound is perhaps the group's most lyrically dark album to date. "Lonely Nation" ("Blood, sweat, and one thing's missing / She's been breaking up inside"), which harks back to "Underwater" from the debut, is equal parts forlornness and desperation. "Easier Than Love" ("Everyone's a lost romantic / Since our love became a kissing show / Everyone's a Casanova / Come and pass me the mistletoe"), by comparison, is shot through with sarcasm and jadedness. "The Blues" ("It'll be a day like this one / When the world caves in") is as gloom-filled as anything in the group's back catalog. And "Politicians" and the leadoff single, "Stars," ("Maybe I've been partly cloudy / Maybe I'm the chance of rain") each paint a decidedly less than flattering portrait of their subjects.

The above notwithstanding, it bears noting that, for all of their introspective tendencies, the Foremans always manage to stop just shy of gratuitous self-pity or wallowing in despair. To be sure, cuts like "Happy Is a Yuppie Word" ("Blessed is the man who's lost it all") are more acknowledgment than lament. Others such as "Shadow Proves the Sunshine" ("Oh, Lord, why did you forsake me? / Oh, Lord, don't be far away") look upward as much as they do inward. Even the desolate fabric of "Golden" ("You're a lonely soul / In a land of broken hearts / Your far from home / Is a perfect place to start") comes stitched with a tangible thread of hope. And the very acts of "looking for the kingdom coming down" and seeking "a bridge I can't burn" ("Happy Is a Yuppie Word") intimate that the singer believes that such things indeed exist.

Fans who took a shine to the playful, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic of songs like "Might Have Ben Hur" and "Gone" will such quirky humor in short supply on the latest project. Similarly, those waiting for a return to the unmistakably spiritual language of, say, the New Way to be Human or Learning to Breathe albums are liable to be likewise disappointed. That said, the poignancy and depth of the new material affords it a deeper, more lasting impression than the group's former, more lighthearted fare. And the oblique spirituality of the latest record encourages a closer, more objective inspection of its songs in order to harvest their underlying nuggets of truth, which is arguably the aim of any band that feels it has something to say.

While Sound falls well shy the group's defining efforts (Letdown and New Way to be Human), its strongest material is well on par with anything the group has written thus far. And if its unrelentingly solemn appraisal of the human condition can become wearisome over time, it nonetheless offers an unflinchingly honest and objective appraisal of both the Foremans' generation and the times in which they find themselves. Admittedly the Switchfoot collective's most difficult listen, Nothing Is Sound is also its most rewarding.
- Bert Gangl
October 2005
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