Music Reviews

Switchfoot’s Expanded Version Of THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN Lives Up To Its Title, Sans Beauty


Genre: Alternative Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Ammunition,” “On Fire”

There were words on THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN I could never make out with my own ears. When Switchfoot’s major label debut came out in 2003, frontman Jon Foreman already had three albums under his belt, but he still sounded raw and untrained, and every now and then a syllable got lost in his San Diego surfer-bro drawl. That includes the moments where the post-grunge distortion clears up, as in the titular ode to not fitting in. “We are a beautiful letdown, painfully uncool / the church of the dropouts, and losers, and sinners, and failures, and fools,” Foreman sings on the song’s bridge. “Oh what a beautiful letdown. Are we salt in the wound?” The next line was a blur until I heard it sung by The Jonas Brothers: “Let us sing one true tune.”

Looking back, I miss the unrefined muddiness. In the words I could make out, and the way Foreman spat and belted them, I could feel that the tune was true. His voice was earthy enough to get the spiritual point across without sounding preachy. It was rough and sun-warmed like sand, and if it found you in the right place and time, as an angsty kid on the other side of Christian radio, it could work its way down to the deepest corners of your pockets, where it never quite washed out.

I rediscovered the power of that voice by its absence in THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN (OUR VERSION) [DELUXE EDITION], a celebration of the record’s 20th anniversary. Earlier this year, Switchfoot released OUR VERSION, a full re-recording of the original album a la Taylor Swift. For the recently released [DELUXE EDITION], they’ve added a cover compilation with 12 featured artists, each interpreting a different track from the original record. Asking anyone to translate the mix of passion and affability that made THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN work to begin with is a tall order. With only a few exceptions, the guests play it too safe to even come close.

Some, like Colony House (“Redemption”) and Noah Gunderson (“This Is Your Life”) offer perfectly inoffensive, if uninspiring, straight-ahead takes. Others make odd creative choices—Owl City’s bubbly synthpop production fits “Gone” more than fine, but Adam Young’s bored, lower-register vocal doesn’t. In their pristine pop performance, The Jonas Brothers polish out the building frustration that sustains “The Beautiful Letdown” for its five-minute run, and they don’t make a very credible showing as members of “the church of the dropouts and losers.” Ryan Tedder’s “Dare You To Move” is the lowest-effort cover by far; the One Republic frontman shows up to sing the second verse and later choruses on the exact same “Our Version” recording Switchfoot released earlier this year.

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But Jon Bellion’s funerary take on “Meant to Live” is the [DELUXE EDITION]’s worst offense, and as the first track, it leaves a sour aftertaste on everything that follows. Bellion omits the song’s iconic, grungy drop-D riff entirely, opting to slow the whole affair down and smother it in Autotune and melodramatic strings. Breaking out the cellos is a tried and true cover formula, one I assume is meant to show deference to your subject, but in the case of “Meant to Live,” it reads as Bellion missing the point of the song he’s paying tribute to. Taking out the guitars is one thing, but by taking all the anger out of the performance and arrangement, Bellion turns “We were meant to live for so much more” into a lament instead of a call to action. The orchestration takes an uplifting, cinematic turn for the last chorus, but without really earning it.

From “Meant to Live” on, through the major label period of Switchfoot’s career, the band’s anger was as important to me as any instrument. (Maybe frustration is the better word—it’s all in the nonplussed “agh!” Foreman grunts going into the second chorus.) Switchfoot spoke to a dawning adolescent understanding of the world’s brokenness, and they also pushed back on the complacency that comes with believing you’ve got your afterlife destination sorted. In their righteous indignation, they made your teen angst seem actionable—see also, the very next track on the record, where they needle: “This is your life / Are you who you wanna be?” Bellion’s version accounts for some of “Meant to Live”’s open-endedness, but it lacks the friendly and forceful push that came with it.

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I say this as someone who needed a push. Switchfoot was one of the few bands of their time who were willing to openly challenge the broadly conservative Christian audience they spoke to (“We want more than the wars of our fathers,” being the sneaky operative line in “Meant to Live”). As I grew into a more progressive theology and social consciousness, Switchfoot’s music became an invaluable stepping stone, in its constant exhortation to live before you die and in its willingness to call out the hypocrisy (“Instead of a Show”), nationalism (“Politicians”), and capitalist excess (“American Dream”) of Christianity and American culture in the decade following 9/11. To go through the motions of a respectful cover is to miss what made THE BEAUTIFUL LETDOWN inspiring. Plenty of Christian bands of the 2000s wrote songs to invite your reverence—Switchfoot wrote songs that dared you to move!

Not everyone on the compilation misses the mark so badly. Relient K sings their tune the truest, offering an amped-up take on “Ammunition” in which Matt Thiessen roughs up his voice, and the band draws out the mid-song breakdown for an extra flash of lit-fuse tension. Sloan Struble of Dayglow at least sounds like he’s having fun with the sound effects on “Adding to the Noise,” and Ingrid Andress gives “On Fire” a refreshingly hopeful lift. But the anchor tracks and their appeals to legacy pop legitimacy drag (OUR VERSION) [DELUXE EDITION] down. Everything sounds articulate, cleanly-produced, and pretty enough, but with little of the soul that made the original record memorable. A beautiful letdown indeed.

Taylor Ruckle
Hailing from Northern Virginia, Taylor Ruckle is a first-gen prototype for a machine that converts MTN DEW Kickstart into music writing at a sometimes-alarming rate. Stubbornly committed to spicy foods, black coffee, From Software games, and albums that will make you confiscate the aux cable. We’ve been made aware of the issue and we’re working on it for the Mk II.

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