Where the Light Shines Through – Switchfoot: Music Review

As a kid, my parents used to screen the music I bought, but at the time I thought it was a torture tactic that deprived me of an inhibition to listen to heavy music instead of seeing it as a necessary filter on my developing mind. In the end, it did prevent me from latching onto legitimately bad music (shouts out to mom and dad). When I was in fourth grade, I petitioned for Linkin Park’s Meteora – an album that toed the line of hard and maybe a little dark for me at the time, so instead I was given a supposedly underwhelming alternative that I had no idea would leave such a long lasting impression – Switchfoot’s, The Beautiful Letdown. Released in 2003 as the band’s major label debut on Vanguard records, it rode the wave of early 2000’s pop rock/post grunge revival that crashed on the shores of MTV, Vh1, most mainstream radio stations, and for me – summers at Trout Lake Camps. The band’s edgy, lo-fi production style soldered with industrial sampling, and a message of honesty against a culture of excess made The Beautiful Letdown and their subsequent album, Nothing Is Sound, game changers for the band as they continued to refine their style.

Admittedly, I abandoned Switchfoot after Oh! Gravity and pre Hello Hurricane after leaving the tall pines and cold lake water of church camp behind me in high school. At the time, their music didn’t have an impact outside of being a memento to that epoch of life. Instead, I traded in grungy earworm melodies for meaner music. However, that changed after going to Winona State and moving in with a few guys my senior year – both of whom are die hard fans that stuck  with Switchfoot the whole course up to their last record, Fading West. I would hear random tracks from some of these albums here and there when my roommates cooked dinner with their Spotify playlists on, and over time I began to appreciate the direction that Switchfoot took at the break in the yellow wood. Now, that I have rekindled a liking for this California surf rock quintet, saw them live a couple years ago, and am now sinking my teeth into this new record, I’ve come to the conclusion that Switchfoot are a band that ages well. These guys are married, have children, trying to balance a career, writing from the heart, and becoming aware of their mortality (ahem, Where I Belong). Yet, in that, they manage to let their hopeful and inspiring message be the period at the end of each album cycle, after each tour, heck, after each track.

Fading West was by far the band’s most ambitious release in which Oh! Gravity’s most experimental junctures pale by comparison. I reviewed it briefly in a summer playlist post last year, noting that the channeling of all-la-Kasabian alt rock with distorted synthesizers, intriguing and energetic soundscapes, and textured production made Fading West a prolific milestone in the band’s career. I was curious in the lead up to Where the Light Shines Through what direction the band would go after the success of the former’s alternative sound…

The result on Where the Light Shines Through is telling about how the band is continuing to age, maybe a bit nostalgic, and still wanting to try on new, musically. Foreman and crew are on their tenth album.13178934_10154832778271679_6040195207218796408_n They are more mature as human beings, fathers, husbands, and musicians who have traveled the world a few times over. I will go out on a limb in saying that Where the Light Shines through is Switchfoot’s most subdued presentation, yet the most energetic, inspirational, moving, and balanced record they have released yet.

Where the Light Shines Through is a collection of introspective epistles that belong in a spectrum much like a dimmer on a light switch. There’s a whole range that reach cathartic heights on songs like the opening track Holy Water and Healer of Souls, the funky Red Hot Chili Pepper flourishes of Float, the experimental curve ball on Looking For America, and to the other end of the dimmer with arena ballads like I Won’t Let You Go, Live It Well, and Hope Is the Anthem. It reminds me of how The World Is A Thorn allowed Demon Hunter to be more frenetic, yet more hushed than ever before on the exact same record. Everything in between is some kind of fusion between the two poles that brings the listener back to homeostasis.

When I listen to Where the Light Shines Through cover to cover, I have these flashbacks to moments on all other releases. Electronic samplings, energetic rhythms, and driving funk on Bull In A China Shop and Holy Water bring me back to the experimental jive on Fading West; the driving, hopeful pace of If the House Burns Down Tonight is reminiscent of Hello Hurricane’s title track; and Live It Well’s anthemic melodies remind me of songs like Restless off Vice Verses. The best part is that within those nostalgic filigrees, Where the Light Shines Through still maintains its own identity with new flavors – particularly Lecrae’s feature on Looking For America. Point being, there is a little something for every fan from every mile marker within ten records. Some of the subtleties in production like the static in the channels of speakers, plugging instruments into amps, and rehearsal moments within the recording process that are left in these songs actually give Where the Light Shines Through a lot of character. For me, the passion soaked in inspirational sounding melodic leads, a bombastic bridge section, and Foreman’s falsetto vocals make I Won’t Let You Go this record’s most passionate delivery and one of my favorite songs. Also, Healer of Souls gritty, lo-fi tone and bouncing rhythm takes my eardrums down memory lane to Remember the Titans when the Alexandria high school football team sojourns to Gettysburg by tune of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In the Sky… therefore, I like it.

Lyrically, this record touches on Biblical themes of us being strong in our weaknesses, embracing adversity, and reflecting on faith with lines like, So let’s go there, to that place where we sing these broken prayers, where the light shines through. The wound is where the light shines through. Yeah, the wound is where the light shines through.” Though, Switchfoot’s catalog proves they’re not foreign to such subject matter, I think this album is more unapologetic – Foreman is upfront and honest about it in ways I haven’t heard since The Beautiful Letdown. In that sense, it lives up to the social media hype that the band created about how this is one of the deepest albums they’ve written with some of Foreman’s favorite lyrics he’s penned so far in his career. The title track and The Day of Found God are highlights that bring the band the closest to living out the message of hope they always sing about in perfect matrimony.

Ultimately, Where the Light Shines Through is an album that is the result of ten albums, twenty years, and all their influences being pulled more inwards to a balanced release. It’s one of their most believable performances that I look forward to taking in more and more. Though this album is not my favorite in their discography (congrats Fading West), it’s still worthwhile and pleases the fourth grader in me who bought that copy of The Beautiful Letdown with allowance money.

we are all kendrick lamar.

To Pimp a Butterfly album cover photo credit: comfortmagazine.com

There’s been a lot of buzz in entertainment circles, the web, and friends of mine about the new Kendrick Lamar record, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Released two weeks ago, this album is considered a prolific genre milestone for hip-hop. Some say this puts Kendric Lamar in line to join the ranks of rap demigods like Tupac with its flagrant social consciousness, diverse sonic influences, and contrast against a generation of mainstream hip-hop.

Kendrick Lamar’s presence as a rapper has sparked conversation among religious circles concerning his music, message, and faith.

Given the controversy, I think this is worth sharing as a way to open to floor to discuss how people express their faith, the art of storytelling, and my thoughts on the debate over his authenticity.

To understand this conversation better, let me provide some context.

Kendrick Lamar is a hip-hop artist native to the rough and tumble concrete jungle of Compton, California. Festooned with drugs, gangs, violence, and economic inequality, Compton is showcased as an example of a place that underpins a myriad of negative influences for young men. Good Kid m.A.A.d. City is an album that paints a vulgar portrait of Lamar’s upbringing. Being raised around gang life, feeding into promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol, the dialogue on this album demonstrates the pull he feels between wanting to fit in and not getting caught up in the negativity. The end of the album marks Kendrick Lamar’s turning point when he publicly professed his faith and was recently baptized while on tour. Throughout GKMC, you hear dispersed voice mail interludes from other family members of Lamar who express their concern and provide silver lining for the sexually provocative, violent, and suggestive imagery. There’s obvious conflict being dramatized. This is where people unsheathe the criticism.

Through recent interviews with the New York Times and XXL Magazine, Kendrick Lamar’s Christianity has become a crux for heated discussion about the credibility of his expressions of faith.

Statistics from David Kinnaman and the Barna research group reveal that millennials are disenchanted with the brand of Christianity that our parents and grandparents were raised by. They’re in search of something that raw, authentic, non-politicized, and accessible. With that comes pastors and modern theologians who raise questions otherwise not questioned by American predecessors. I think people like Kendrick Lamar are the lightning rod for discussion concerning authenticity of newer Christianity.

I’m 22 years old. My age and experiences in the church make me part of this conversation of how do we as Christians openly communicate our doubts, concerns, fears, and shortcomings with dignity and honesty. It’s a hard but necessary discussion to have in house. It’s messy, but is a catalyst for creating tight-knit organic community, growth, and moving forward.

Good Kid m.A.A.d. City album cover photo credit mzshyneka.com
Good Kid m.A.A.d. City album cover photo credit mzshyneka.com

Kendrick is not only conscious of the criticism he receives for the verbiage in his rhymes, but is conscious about the pull he feels between his environment, the temptations of stardom, and his new found faith. I mean, Swimming Pools from GKMC is a perfect example. Underneath the grimy west coast instrumental hypnotism lies a narrative about Kendrick living around alcoholism and his friends tempting him to take part. While it might seem that Kendrick promotes the lifestyle, it’s an undisguised story about peer pressure and how he deals with a very human phenomenon…temptation.

There’s honesty to songs like this in ways that hit me in waves. Tyler Huckabee said it best in an article written for Relevant Magazine… “That might lead some people to call him a hypocrite but then, he’s already beat them to that particular punch.”

It’s a bummer for me to read a sea of Facebook commentary and see people putting Kendrick Lamar and their fellow believers in front of a social media firing squad. People are putting Kendrick Lamar’s character into question and going so far as to saying he’s not really a believer because of his language. Someone did say in this mammoth thread that his story is worth telling, even if he’s not as squeaky clean as Lecrae.

I don’t call out Lecrae to set him as the bar for all others, nor do I encourage Kendrick Lamar to be so vulgar. What I’m saying is that guys like Kendrick Lamar are sharing a testimony in the same language, but in a different dialect.

Kendrick Lamar deserves grace, guidance, and encouragement just like the rest of us do. Our lives aren’t pristine trophies of triumph, joy, and pervasive delight in the Lord. We deal with temptation from the vices of our past and will sometimes feel the pull. It’s how we deal with those temptations and tell that story that matters.

Personally, I can relate to Kendrick Lamar. Not because I grew up around gangs, in an impoverished neighborhood, or was exposed to a lot of violence, but I understand the acute conflict between temptation and searching for God in the midst of coping with my past. It’s not an easy balance and is stressful. When I tell my story it’s not meant to be polished and refined to appeal to a marketable audience. I would rather sit down and be real with someone.

This reminds me a lot of Romans 7:15 where Paul writes, “ I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” That feeling of being caught up in something self-destructive but trying to continue finding meaning in what God has for us.

Loud and clear, I don’t endorse Christians cutting rap albums festooned with explicit imagery and vulgar language, but I don’t think we need to immediately go after Lamar for doing so either, especially because he’s new to the faith. I don’t expect people who have newly accepted this life in Christ to be sterile and unaffected by a life they have lived for so long. I didn’t. I still don’t.

Now that I think of it, all of us as Christians are Kendrick Lamar in a way. We are all in this narrow walk towards Christ, taking the bumps as they come along – sometimes with ease, sometimes with hardship, always with grace. We are all telling a story of restoration that is sometimes painful and is also partially unwritten. We have growth ahead of us, joy to look forward to, rough times to tackle, lessons to learn, and are always striving to be more honest with each other, our neighbors, ourselves, and God.