It can be tremendously interesting to see the collision of artistic restlessness and pop sensibilities. When a beloved artist (be they a writer, movie director or a band) follows a certain itch and produces something slightly more challenging than normal, it's always a bit of a gamble that their established fans will follow them and that newer ones will take the time to absorb a more off-kilter work. U2's fans struggled mightily with the experimental and difficult No Line On The Horizon and Zooropa albums, while suspenseful director M. Night Shyamalan has only recently regained viewers after many years wandering through genre experiment films like Lady In The Water and The Village.
Switchfoot's career arc has followed in the same pattern. The band has often been a mostly anthemic, crowd-pleasing group (just watch the audience when those chiming chords from "Dare You To Move" start to ring out), but they've also had a fair amount of sonic invention as well. It's hard to believe, but Switchfoot is heading towards the twenty-five-year mark as a band. There may not be a more beloved band out there, or one that continually challenges their fans record after record. In their last three outings, they have produced a California, sun-drenched harmony album (Where The Light Shines Through), a poppy-yet earnest and twisty record (Native Tongue) and a batch of cover tunes that spanned R&B to strummy folk rock (Covers – EP).
In the spirit of that artistic restlessness comes the band's enigmatically titled new album, Interrobang, a work as (initially) confusing as its name (or its cover art). But given repeated listens and careful attention to lyrics and references, Interrobang is an interesting album, but, alas, one that's largely missing any sort of "hook" or overt pop chorus that rewards the listener for making it through all those twists and turns, starts and stops, and off rhythms of its songs.
According to the band's album notes, the title, Interrobang, comes from a combination of the technical name for the question mark (the "interrogation point"), and the printer's slang for an exclamation point ("bang"). And unfortunately, that mixed messaging of the album title seems to come through in the sometimes-aimless song paths and tempos that make up the bulk of the album.
That's not to say that the band is off, thematically speaking. If fact, Jon Foreman's lyrics are on point and as sharp as ever. Foreman is one of the keenest wordsmiths working in music today, with one eye on the heavens, and the other on the headlines. In the opening track, "Beloved," Foreman's opening salvo of words neatly encapsulates the last year's heartache and uncertainty: "Maybe all the world is insecure / maybe all of us are looking for a cure / maybe, that can finally reassure, maybe / we're chasing after money like a drug / but the money's never gonna be enough / no, it's never gonna take the place of love, maybe / I'm still looking for the truth, but I can't seem to find it in the news / when it all starts singing like the blues, maybe / the days start feeling like the nights / like it's just another way to lose a fight / like I'm the only one who's looking for the light, maybe"?
The song's meandering, mid-tempo shuffling could perhaps be written to match the "blues" mentioned in the lyrics. And while the tune eventually "takes off" both thematically and rhythmically towards the end, it's a tough way to start an album. Following tracks "Lost 'Cause" and "Fluorescent" both have interesting musical palettes (especially that repeated string arrangement in "Fluorescent"), but largely follow the same mid-tempo trot, forming a bit of a bummer of an opening trilogy of songs.
The album's best moment is the rocker "If I were You," which comes as close to a classic, thrashy Switchfoot song as anything on the album. Alas, the melancholy quickly returns with the sincere-yet-sleepy "The Bones Of Us." This song's ambient texture is pleasant in that "late night drive" sort of way, but its placement after the album's fastest track is a bit jarring. The melody here is soothing, and this would have made for a great ending track or closing coda for the album. Things kick back up with "Splinter," with Foreman shouting out "my mind is at war / I lie awake in bed / like a splinter in my hand / like a splinter in my head" in his best rock and roll delivery. "I Need You (To Be Wrong)" continues the downtempo, moody trend, with the band doing their best Radiohead impersonation for a song that's lyrics really call for a more strident musical bed. Thankfully, the ending "Electricity" does live up to its namesake and finishes the album on an upward note, both musically and thematically.
And Radiohead might be the best comparison here. Like that band's divisive KID A or Wilco's similarly sonically moody Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Interrobang will likely divide fans of Switchfoot. Some will see it as a glum masterpiece, accurately reflecting the dark past few years of pandemic and politics, while others will lament the lack of a "spark" in the music and tune out for a bit. Really, the choice is up to the listener. But to these ears, the album sounds overbaked and overthought, even if tremendously sincere.- Review date: 8/19/21, written by Alex Caldwell of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Fantasy Records
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