After an impressive preview EP that gave us a small taste of this album, Switchfoot has at last given us their ninth studio album, Fading West. Preceded by a tour and documentary about the band it should come as no surprise that their passion for their craft and the constant push for connection are as present as ever. What makes this record such a standout is the experimentation present throughout the record, making it one of their most ambitious to date.
"Love Alone Is Worth the Fight" is an atmospheric powerhouse of an opener, propelled forward by a piano in the intro and processed beats and guitar fills during the verses. The expansive nature of the track is refreshing and the bright production rewards those willing to revisit the track with open ears. It's a winner and harkens back a bit to the band's earlier work while expanding on their growth over the past few albums. "Who We Are" continues the trend with its layered vocals and pop sensibilities. There's a very distinct MGMT vibe going on here and it fits the band really well. At first I was a bit confused about what they were trying to do but several listens later I was easily won over.
"When We Come Alive" sounds a bit like "Where I Belong" from Vice Verses, yet it manages to escape being a clone with more processed instrumentation and an expansive chorus. This is a recurring trend throughout Fading West and one that may initially dismay those who yearn for the heavier rock sound of past albums. The atmosphere is more processed, more layered, and features rich textures that give the band a whole new palate to play with. "Say It Like You Mean It" rides a subtle hip-hop beat and Jon Foreman's static-drenched vocals are an interesting touch. It's probably destined to be one of the more "acquired taste" tracks on the record but to these years it's effective and fairly catchy. Things become even more interesting with "The World You Want", a piano-driven piece sprinkled with strings, loops, and samples. It takes Switchfoot's signature sound and once again turns it upside down. As always, Jon's lyrics are hopeful and constantly looking outward, as evidenced here with his statement, "Everyday you're alive you change the world." He then asks the simple question "Is this the world you want?"
The chimes and acoustic flavor of "Slipping Away" is another refreshing change of pace. There's a big pop flavor to this tune but it never becomes sappy or predictable, which will come as a relief to those worried the band might be residing in obvious or easy territory. Chad Butler's drumming is a highlight simply because he sounds so different, not just on this tune but on the album as a whole. His simple yet distinct beats help lay out a canvas that allows the rest of the band to expand and branch out. Not to be outdone, "BA55" is one of the album's best cuts, a dirty and infectious bassline giving way to a groove that wouldn't sound out of place on one of Beck's records. The distorted vocals, fuzzy synths, and looping beats are a breath of fresh air for this band and the record as a whole sustains a coherent sound that makes it an immersive and complete experience. If you're on edge about the new sound this is a good track to look into and see what you think.
"Let It Out" is pleasing to the ears and it builds wonderfully, while "All or Nothing at All" rides a strong backing beat and fuzzy synths. "Saltwater Heart" is another acoustic-driven track that morphs into a bigger and more electronic track by the chorus. It's a standout and one that could easily be the album's next single. The closer "Back to the Beginning Again" sounds a bit like a slower version of "Hello Hurricane", propelled by gentle guitars before exploding into a massive pop tune. It's a solid ending to the album and a great slab of songwriting that grabs you right from the first listen.
Fading West is quite an accomplishment for Switchfoot. As someone who's been a fan ever since 1999's New Way to Be Human I can honestly say I haven't been this surprised by one of their albums since the heavier sound of The Beautiful Letdown back in 2003. This is a more layered and electronic sound that will undoubtably confuse or disappoint those hoping for another LP of big rock tunes. This is the sound of a band pushing themselves and branching out with fantastic results. The lack of big guitars and pounding drums is replaced by layered beats and multi-tracked vocals, giving away to a more electronic sound that's big on keyboards and low on guitar and massive drums. This is a different side of the band that we've rarely seen before, yet it fits them comfortably. It's not perfect and the songs do have a tendency to run into each other, making it difficult at first to tell some of them apart. The diversity of records like Learning to Breathe or Hello Hurricane is sorely absent but the tradeoff is a more challenging and detailed record that finds the band sailing for new shores. I'm thankful they're still allowing us to go along for the ride.