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Album Review

Longtime fans of Switchfoot are no doubt aware that these five guys from San Diego love surfing at least as much as—or maybe even more than—cranking out their signature brand of hope-drenched, faith-infused rock. So much so, in fact, that 2012 found the band filming a movie titled Fading West (released online in December 2013) as they toured the world's surfing sanctuaries. Hot on the heels of that rock'n'surfumentary comes Switchfoot's ninth album, which also does double duty as the movie's soundtrack.

Compared to the visceral, fuzzed-out ferocity of the band's last two rock-flavored efforts (2009's  Hello Hurricane and 2011's Vice Verses), Fading West slips and slides across the sonic waves in some different ways. The group hasn't tossed guitars and amps overboard, mind you, but the frequent presence of synthesizers and drum loops lend Fading West a different, decidedly poppier feel than anything Switchfoot's done recently. That's cool. (Or rad, or gnarly, or whatever it is the surfer kids are saying these days.) But even better is the fact that the sound is still in the service of songs that grapple earnestly and faithfully with life's inevitable complexities and conundrums.

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What is the opposite of fear? Lead single " Love Alone Is Worth the Fight" suggests that it's love, and that love is what we must cling to when fear threatens to overwhelm. "Is it fear you're afraid of?" frontman Jon Foreman asks, "What are you waiting for?/Love alone is worth the fight." The song also tells us that we find our purpose and place in life when we risk pursuing our dreams, no matter how afraid we feel.

"Who We Are" celebrates the journey of discovery that Switchfoot's five members have taken together while simultaneously posing the provocative question, "Do we become what we believe in?" The clear suggestion is that the answer is yes. "When We Come Alive" insists that a spark of creative, vital fire burns within each of us ("We are fire/Burning brightly/You and I"), a spark we must be careful not to let life's disappointments extinguish ("Yesterday reads like a tragedy/I try not to lose what's left of me/But it's gone/Yeah, but we carry on").

Exhorting fans to be people whose actions match their words and convictions, "Say It Like You Mean It" tells us, "I'm still looking for a correlation/Between what you say and how you roll." Likewise, "The World You Want" stridently reminds us that our words, actions and choices all express what we truly believe: "What you say is your religion/How you say it's your religion/Who you love is your religion/How you love is your religion/All your science your religion/All your hatred your religion."

"Ba55" longs for spiritual cleansing ("I want a fire that could burn me clean") and deep healing ("I want a fire burn down the door/Let the wounds of my embers sour/And let my soul fly"), outcomes the band suggests only God can bring about ("I believe You're the fire that could burn me clean"). "Saltwater Heart" dives into the spiritual refreshment and sense of God's presence the band experiences when surfing ("When I'm on Your shore again/I can feel the ocean/I can feel Your open arms/Like pure emotion/I'm finally free again").

Shrugging off struggle and weariness, "Let It Out" encourages those crippled by anxiety to "breathe in and let it out," and in so doing overcome their fears ("We've been scared to sing out loud/But we don't care no more/Because we know life is short/We don't care who hears us now"). "All or Nothing At All" teaches that unconditional love requires embracing others lovingly, warts and all, and pledges to keep trying to love others better.

Album closer "Back to the Beginning Again" provides one of the strongest allusions to the band's faith ("My hope is anchored on the other side") even as it affirms God's mending presence in the here-and-now ("And my heart is yours/And what a broken place it's in/but you're what I'm running for/And I want to feel the wind at my back again").

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Summary Advisory

Switchfoot isn't switching. Recent fans might think they've gone goofy on this disc, but nine albums and 15 years into their musical journey together, these five soul surfers continue to offer honest, earnest and yearning-filled observations about the messy-but-beautiful nature of life on earth. Here, hope and despair collide, sometimes shockingly so. Sometimes it seems it's all we can do just to collect the broken shards and fragments of our lives. But even in these moments, Foreman and Co. insist that love and faith remain the right responses in moments of doubt and despair.

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Debuted at No. 6.

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January 14, 2014

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Adam R. Holz

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