The year was 2005. I was a junior in college, and it felt like the world was both beckoning me to a wide open future and coming apart at the seams.
We millennials may joke about the “dumpster fire” of the past few years, but I humbly submit that the fire sparked long ago, and I didn’t notice the smoke until the turn of the millennium. In 2004, I was finally old enough to vote in a Presidential election. Twitter and iPhones didn’t exist yet, but the ugly divisiveness of partisan politics was already sneaking into my life. The wounds of 9/11 were fresh and raw, the War on Terror was just beginning, anyone with cable TV could pick their 24 hour news cycle poison, and I was spending my days running between my small town comfort and the diverse world of a city university.
Oh, also the certainty I used to feel in my faith was beginning to crack. Just a little.
If anything, I needed music to capture the vague despair and fear and anger in the air and spin it into hope. I needed Switchfoot, a band I’d casually enjoyed since high school, and a record called Nothing is Sound.
Of all the bands I loved in my younger years (the time of life that supposedly shapes your musical tastes forever), there’s something about Switchfoot that continues to stick with me. If you listen to their early work — especially 1998’s fabulous New Way to Be Human — you find smart, philosophical songwriting tucked into a surf-punk vibe. Skip ahead twenty years to 2019’s Native Tongue and you find relentless hope in a world that seems to be perpetually on fire.
But I would humbly suggest Nothing is Sound might be their greatest achievement. It came just two short years after they broke big in the mainstream, but to some it was considered a commercial flop. Instead of peppy melodies and self-aware anthems, the sound took a darker tone and the lyrics dwelled on empty consumerism, disconnect, loneliness, and war. It’s Psalms and Ecclesiastes and Lamentations all at once. And somehow, in all that, it lands on hope in the end.
Permission to be angry. Permission to lament. Permission to, in spite of it all, not lose hope.
Just what a quiet, uncertain, and confused young woman in a lonely world needed.
“I want more than my lonely nation“
The album opens with dirty guitars and an introduction to an unnamed character: “she turns like the ocean / she tells no emotion… she’s been breaking up inside.” I’m only now realizing how 21 year old me, growing up and discovering the complicated ache of the world, might have recognized herself in this nameless “she.” The aggressive, dark-tinged rock hints toward a rage under the surface, while the lyrics address a weary loneliness, frustration, and longing to see the world set right.
Two years before, this band declared “We want more than this world’s got to offer,” and it felt like a fist-pumping empowerment anthem. But here, the desire takes on a whole new urgency: “I want more than my desperation / I want more than my lonely nation.”
But how can the world be set right when the people tasked to care for it appear to tune out, chasing after empty pleasure? After all:
We’re just numb and amused and We’re just used to bad news and We are slaves of what we want…
Or consider this line from from the most notable single “Stars”
Stars looking at a planet Watching entropy and pain And maybe start to wonder how the chaos in our lives can pass as sane.
Then there’s the Bob Dylan-inspired rumination “Happy is a Yuppie Word.” As the specter of war loomed large and the economic prosperity of previous decades came to an end, Foreman meditates on the failure of empires and empty consumerism, tapping into the well of full-on Ecclesiastical lament:
Everything fails Everything runs its course A time and a place For all of this love and war Everyone buys Everyone’s got a price But nothing is new When will all the failures rise?
And so the story goes. “Nothing is new,” says the author of Ecclesiastes, and “Nothing is sound!” screams a singer into the pain. Nothing is steady, “nothing is right-side right,” and when I hear these words, I’m once again sitting on the university quad, wondering about the future and the pain of war and the violence of words and talking heads on TV news.
And in 2019… nothing is new, is it? The second-by-second social media news cycle, the pundits escaping the boundaries of cable news and pontificating from my phone, even Instagram squeezing pristine influencers and finely targeted ads between pictures of friends and their kids and their vacation photos.
I can’t help but think “Easier Than Love,” a song about commercializing sex to distract from loneliness, is an apt lament for the disconnection and perfectionism of the Instagram age: “It’s easier to fake and smile and brag… it’s harder to face our souls at night.” I can’t help but realize I’ve never related more to the unbridled roar of a line like “I pledge allegiance to a country without borders, without politicians.”
Nothing is new indeed.
“But these scars will heal”
If there’s one thing that has marked Switchfoot all these years though, it’s this: joy is inescapable. Somehow, even as they rail against the empty promises of a materialistic American Dream, there’s a hope that can’t be suppressed. You hear it in the album’s most joyful track, “We Are One Tonight,” an anthem of solidarity that would almost feel out of place if it wasn’t such a necessary counterpoint.
“And the world is flawed / but these scars will heal,” the song declares against all odds. Somehow, in the midst of fear and fighting and loneliness, healing waits. There’s still beauty, still sunshine on the edges of the shadows, still friendship and love and waves to catch and songs to sing.
When I listened in my early-twenties angst, I might have overlooked the more joyful songs. When I listen today though, I cling to them. And I can’t help but notice how the closer “Daisy” brings it all full circle. The album opens with the image of a woman who is “breaking up inside,” and ends with a gentle invitation and an affirmation. I’d like to think these two characters are the same person:
Open up your fist This fallen world doesn’t hold your interest it doesn’t own your soul Daisy, let it go…
We can’t escape the fallen world. We can rage against injustice, interrogate our desires, sit in our loneliness, and keep our gluttony in check. We can choose: will we be just another consumer, or will we live fully alive in the world as it is? If I had any quibble with these lines today, it would be that this fallen world does have interest, as I imagine all it can be. It’s a promise and a shadow of the world to come… and well… “the shadow proves the sunshine,” doesn’t it?
But no, it doesn’t own my soul either. Sometimes I need songs to remind me.