Although it wasn't until the release of The Beautiful Letdown over two years ago that the band exploded into the mainstream, Switchfoot has been making quality alternative rock for over eight years. Now with a few successful radio singles and a multi-platinum record under their belt, the San Diego trio-turned-quintet returns with Nothing Is Sound. The spotlight heat is on the guys hotter than ever as their Christian fans wonder if the band has sold out, while mainstream fans just want another batch of hit singles. Stacks of questions have been proposed and Nothing Is Sound is the answer.
This album is everything one can come to expect from Switchfoot with a major label release. The production has been significantly upped, leaving each song more lush and full than any recording the band's done previously, without compromising the song's raw energy. The band began in '95 as just Jon Foreman as lead singer and chief songwriter, his brother Tim and their friend Chad Butler, and released three records on Sparrow Records together. The Switchfoot musical format was a healthy blend of poetic songwriting, alternative rock, and just a dusting of subtle spirituality. Foreman's songwriting has always been sort of a social commentary or reflection on personal experiences. The band has never been known as one that has an especially evangelistic message. So when the listener looks into the "everything is meaningless" messages that Nothing Is Sound adopts, finding the word "Lord" as the only potential reference to our Jesus (used thrice in one song), there really shouldn't be any surprise. The band's debut The Legend Of Chin possessed a similar subtlety.
But where Nothing Is Sound lacks in direct spiritual and Christian message, it makes up with hopeful or relevant writing. Songs like the hooky first single "Stars" point out the problems with being self-centered and the implication of something greater beyond ourselves. "Easier Than Love" is a beautifully blunt attack on the world's view on sex and love, declaring the obvious reason that "sex sells" in the media is because sex is easier than the more difficult and seemingly impossible "love." The catchy rock song opens with bold verses like "Sex is currency / She sells cars, she sells magazines / Addictive, bittersweet, clap your hands / with the hopeless nicotines..." It's songs like this that offer a message mainstream listeners seldom hear and probably doesn't even know what to do with. It's refreshing to say the least.
Ferociously catchy songs like "Lonely Nation," "Stars," and the Bob Dylan-inspired "Happy Is A Yuppie Word" drip with emotion and passion, all the while capturing a fine sense of the band's engaging live performances. The album is sensitive and desperate, while offering glimmers of light at the same time. "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine" is a rock ballad inspired by a fact-finding trip Switchfoot took to South Africa earlier this year to see for themselves what poverty and disease was doing to the country. "The Blues," which Foreman penned on New Years Day 2004, is a song about finding beauty in the world ending and resonates with the pretty laments of songs like "Let That Be Enough" from the band's second album. Musically, much of the album remains in the same vein as signature Switchfoot fare. The bittersweet ballads are all there, and the rock element that band has explored in recent years is worked further throughout the album's songs. But fans of the more stripped-down sound of their earlier releases may have a hard time swallowing the more produced approach.
The DualDisc version of Nothing Is Sound offers a special documentary on the making of the album in addition to two versions of audio for the album (one via typical audio for your stereo and one in 5.1 Surround Sound on the DVD side). The documentary entitled "The Making Of Nothing Is Sound," follows the band on their journey of recording the record while on the road. Clocking in at half an hour, the video takes a deep look into the writing process of several of the album's songs, including "Lonely Nation," "Easier Than Love," and "Stars." Probably the most noteworthy and impactful look into any of the album's songs is "The Shadow Proves The Sunshine," which shows the band visiting South Africa and interacting with the children there. The video also shows Jon experimenting with a different approach to recording vocals for the song, as he literally sang into the strings of a piano and recorded the effect for the album. Another highlight is watching Foreman sitting at his laptop with a harmonica around his neck and a guitar in hand as he pens "The Fatal Wound" on the spot. The only thing I felt missing from it was any kind of mention of the band's spiritual beliefs which have been a foundation for their music since the beginning. Regardless, fans will not want to miss this documentary. But as if the DVD extras weren't enough, probably the version-of-versions to acquire of the many Nothing Is Sound renditions available would be Target department store's exclusive version of the DualDisc. In addition to the DVD, Target's exclusive includes a thirteenth track on all of their CD's entitled "Good Night Punk," a candid and raw acoustic song that shows the more humorous side of the band that was seemingly more prominent in their earlier releases. Although the track isn't even three minutes in length and is of low sound quality, it's still an addition fans should check out.
Nothing Is Sound is a sonically rich album that fits nicely among the band's impressive discography, offering fans something new, but keeping it very much Switchfoot from start to finish. Whether or not the mainstream continues to embrace the band's music, Switchfoot remains to be one of the best bands in today's current music scene.- Review date: 9/11/05, written by John DiBiase
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