Careful. That's the immediate thought that went through my head when Switchfoot announced a re-recorded "our version" of The Beautiful Letdown. This was to be in honor of its 20th anniversary this February 2023, even if the release missed by a couple of months. I suspect they may also be going the Taylor Swift route to gain control of the song masters from a label, though this is strictly conjecture. Regardless, as a longtime fan of the band and this iconic album specifically, it's a fine line to walk when you start toying with new versions of beloved songs. Risking fan alienation takes a level of bravery few artists choose to take on in their active years. Conversely, why risk the inevitable backlash of questions like, "Is this just a cash grab?" by not changing enough to warrant the effort? With any other band, save for a select few, my fears may have been justified, but this is Switchfoot, and I'm happy to report a home run effort.
To be clear, the changes outside of a main one are primarily subtle, so if you're looking for re-imagined versions of these songs, that's not what we have here. This will be a study in nuances. But before we get too far into the minutia, let's talk about the b-sides "Monday Comes Around" and "In My Blood," which were included to those that pre-ordered a physical product from the Switchfoot web-store. Many tenured followers of the band will recognize the former as a song cut from the track list late in the game and then later included on the deluxe edition in 2007. It still sounds great and I've always believed it should have stayed in the first place, so I'm happy to see it re-introduced here. "In My Blood" was said to have been recorded during The Beautiful Letdown era, and pulled from the vault for this occasion. To my ears, you can hear a lot of the Switchfoot sound eras from Oh! Gravity to Interrobang within it. Fuzzy guitars and darker tones make for a terrific song that gets immediate placement on my 2023 playlist.
So, how does the rest of "Our Version" compare to the 2003 original? Well, I mentioned nuance and subtlety, but first must make mention of the one major difference, and that's the volume. I want to tread carefully with my words here because louder doesn't necessarily mean better, or worse off for that matter. Listeners and audiophiles fall on either side of the "loudness wars" concerning the modern propensity to mix music at louder volumes. Regardless, I'm punching far outside my weight class here so take this with a grain of salt. If you listen to the two versions of the album back-to-back, the volume is several notches louder this time around. The guitars are ever-so-slightly lowered in favor of the drums and vocals. This is across the board on the album "fixing" one gripe I have heard levied against it that the two big singles sound different than the rest of the original mix. This greater balance allows you to hear the individual instruments more clearly on "Our Version," making for a more cohesive listening experience. For me, that fact alone justifies the album's existence. It just sounds brighter, more open, and yes, louder. The album has the feel of a live-in-studio recording, though I don't think that was the approach taken.
So, the little nuances that I've caught so far start with "This is Your Life," which has a little girl's voice saying "can't wait" in the background of the mid-point of the song, which is a nice touch. Secondly, the title track makes use of what sounds like a vocoder for some of the "I don't belong here" parts, giving it some electronic texture. Next, there are a few word changes in "Gone." The lyric "Al Pacino's cash" is now "Al Capone's cash," and "Lexus cages" is now "Tesla cages." Additionally, "my high school sweets" becomes "my high school sweethearts." Aside from those word changes, and a few barely noticeable extra "a's" or "the's," the record stays faithful to the original. The award for the most improved song here goes to "Adding to the Noise." For me, that's significant as it's the only song I'm occasionally tempted to skip. The brief symphonic sound while singing the line, "We are the symphony of modern humanity," combined with new mix levels, lifts this song from okay to on par with the rest of the tracklist.
All in all, the question remains, given the choice between the two, which one will fans, including this one, return to most? Perhaps moving beyond the noise-canceling headphones or the car stereo to the pre-ordered vinyl will further answer that unknown shortly. Ultimately, time will tell, but for now, it's just nice to celebrate a truly great album that's had an air of freshness breathed into it. Hopefully, fans old and new will find their way back to the messages of hope in a Kingdom come over the gods of consumerism and materialism. It's the reminder we need in an ever-increasingly restless world seeking fulfillment in all the wrong places. May we all return to and embrace the "beautiful letdown," remembering the evergreen truth that "I/we don't belong here."- Review date: 5/4/23, written by Josh Balogh of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Lowercase People
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