The day was December 15th, 2017. Switchfoot announced their first official hiatus in over 20 years of bandhood. Christian music fans (and many of us staff writers here at Jesusfreakhideout) held their breath as we awaited the band's potentially precarious future. It's fairly common for groups to claim hiatus only to never return again. The suspense wasn't held for very long, however, as the San Diegan rockers issued another statement last September: they would be back with new music shortly. This made the gap between Where The Light Shines Through and their newest release, Native Tongue, only about 2 and a half years - pretty standard fare for an album cycle. One might question the need for the initial announcement in the first place, but it certainly heightened the anticipation for their eleventh studio album. Would this feel like a comeback album, more of the same, or something entirely different? In some ways, Native Tongue is in between all of those labels, and it's that quality of inconsistency that serves as its greatest detriment and its greatest prospect.
Foreman and company might not be the most inventive or musically diverse group around, but their steady sonic evolution and solid songwriting over the past two decades are what have made them a mainstay. Unfortunately, those strengths show cracks throughout the album. The trendy rock/rap of the title track is the first example of this. The tune simply doesn't fit their musical sensibilities, and although the lyrics work well, the message and delivery is no different from anything else Jon has sung over the past few albums. This tendency to be in vogue is leaned into even more heavily on tracks like "Voices" (as much a weaker Twenty One Pilots track as anything else), "Joy Invincible," and "All I Need." Switchfoot has always had a few tracks per album that feel like trend-bait (a la most of their singles), but this time around, it's a large chunk of the album, noticeably dulling the cutting edge of Jon's songwriting.
Outside of the songs that simply don't work, a number of tunes just don't have much staying power. Opener "Let It Happen" is a decent alternative anthem with a particularly fun bridge, but the lyrics and vocals feel a bit forced and hardly memorable. The same can be said for "Prodigal Soul," which feels like an early-era song for the group, but it doesn't leave much impact. This is the album's greatest shortcoming. So many of the tracks merely come and go, providing very little engaging material. As their first post-hiatus release, Native Tongue often feels like a lackluster misstep.
After the initial wave of disappointment mixed with exaggerated hype ebbs away, it becomes clear that there are still a few gems here that are definitely worth holding onto. "Dig New Streams" is a strange, mid-era-Beatles-sounding track complete with a drastic tempo change and bassist Tim on lead vocals for one of the verses. This is the type of experimentation that Switchfoot always does well, and it carries over into the second half of the album pretty strongly. "The Hardest Art" is surprisingly electronic, lyrically clever, and a truly risky song that pays off well. The fact that it leads right into the creative piano ballad "Wonderful Feeling" is an added bonus. "Take My Fire" sees the group dive heavily into garage rock mixed with hip hop, while "Oxygen" features the most unique sonic palette on the album, elevating itself over a clear genre through its multiple keys and disorientingly dreamy vibe.
If this review comes across as dichotomous, it's only because Native Tongue is quite the tale of two halves. Half of the album is the group at their most banal and desperately fashionable, while the other half is disparately exploratory and generally interesting. Perhaps this contrast is why they made this collection their "return" - they get to maintain commercial vitality while showing that there are still areas of sound they can attempt to traverse. That contrariety may have lead to a divisive album, but there's certainly enough here for everyone to release their breath and acknowledge that as long as these boys stick together, there is still hope for something worthwhile to come out of their unity.- Review date: 1/1/19, written by Mason Haynie of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: 2019 Fantasy Records, a division of Concord Music Group, Inc.
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