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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Review: The Beautiful Letdown (Our Version) by Switchfoot

Switchfoot's breakthrough album that brought them to worldwide attention turns 20 years old this year. The double-platinum selling album, The Beautiful Letdown, featuring hits like Meant to Live and Dare You to Move was first released in 2003. Recorded in a mere 10 days, the album features many of the bands defining songs and remains a stunning example of what makes the band distinct. It is well-crafted alternative rock that expresses a yearning for meaning and purpose in an angsty culture, a yearning that points to Christ, but without the preachy quality typical of Christian music. It instead wrestles deeply with the tensions of four men in their 20s, trying to find their place in a real, messy world with a faith that carries them through. I first discovered them two years later at the age of 11 and very soon was listening to this album on repeat. 20 years later, the band, taking a cue from Taylor Swift, decided to reclaim the album from the record label drama that surrounded its original release and rerecord it in their own studio for their own label. I was skeptical of why such a great album would need to be rerecorded and many of these songs do not replace the originals. But the album features great performances, improved vocals from lead singer, Jon Foreman, and their distinct drum and bass sound that they developed only after The Beautiful Letdown. The band that exists now, with all they have learned, lends itself to really interesting rerecords of incredible songs that made them who they are today to begin with.

1. Meant to Live

This is one of Switchfoot's most iconic songs. I love still hearing it on alternative radio and it never misses a concert. I was skeptical of the rerecord on first listen. It sounds very similar to the original with the song built around the iconic guitar riff. The biggest difference is in Jon Foreman's vocals, which now sound more open and also has a slight high raspy edge, but I wasn't convinced the new performance had the earnestness of the original recording. Yet on further listens, this sounds more like how I am used to hearing the song live, performed with Jon's voice as it is now. The drums and bass pop in the mix in a different way to the original, part of how they have adapted their recording styles over the years. I'm not sure we need a rerecord of this song. Just hear the song live. And the guitar feedback at the end of the original track is definitely not beaten. But hearing the new version shows how strong the original song always was. It still stands out, has the same energy, and the yearning that there is more to live for than the immediate world around us still has as much resonance as it always has. That captures me now coming up on 30 just as much as it did as a middle schooler.

2. This Is Your Life

The experimental sound of this song always captured my imagination, with its distorted bass riff and keyboard effects. This song always had a lot of interesting textures. The new record contains all of these with some updated technology. The bass adds a bit of echo, making for a bigger sound. The keyboard effects have more prominence in the mix. The band has experimented (with varying levels of success) with many different sonic sounds since this song was first recorded. The band approaches the sonic elements of this song with new levels of confidence. I love the big sound they created, but the lo-fi textures of the original are tough to beat. What stands out on the rerecord is just how open Jon's vocals are. He sounds more comfortable with the high notes of the chorus. As a result, the chorus feels bigger as it poses a question I still grapple with: "This is your life, are you who you want to be?"

3. More Than Fine

The third track features an updated sonic intro (originally produced by an old video game console and a drum machine) and a warmer acoustic guitar tone. This is another song where Jon's improved voice shows in a more open and confidant chorus. This fun song furthers the themes of the opening track, no longer as an angsty yearning for meaning, but a confidant commitment to looking for more out of life than just getting by. It sounds less like the commitment of 20 year-olds to pursuing such a life, but of 40 year-olds grateful for such a life. The keyboard and electric guitar tones of the original still stand out to me as superior.

4. Ammunition

The drum intro has certainly come a long way from the original, recorded in a broom closet. The original is authentically lo-fi in a way the rerecord aspires too. I find the crisp guitar tones of the new version actually diminish the energy of the riff. The rerecord is fun, like the original, but I think the original has more energy and life to the performance and mix. Jon has only made the themes of human responsibility for the world's condition more personal with later songs like Mess of Me and The War Inside that this song laid the seeds for. Those seeds have grown best in the soil of those other songs rather than in this rerecord.

5. Dare You To Move

There have been a lot of versions to this song, with the deluxe edition of the original album featuring two versions, not to mention the original from Learning to Breathe and numerous live recordings. This song has taken on so much life and meaning over the years, featuring as a high point of every concert that is feels far more profound than its genesis as an encouragement for Jon to get out of a bad relationship. This was the track I began to come around to this rerecord on my first listen. The performance sounds like a band that understands the significance of this song they could only dream of when first recording it. While you're best off hearing live recordings of this song, I think the rerecord captures some of the energy of live performances that show why this song is such an inspiration.

6. Redemption

Redemption was always the most under-rated song from the original album. It was only played live twice, including a pandemic livestream and at the first Switchfoot show I attended. It is a song of defiance towards doubt and cynicism in light of the greatness of God's love expressed on the cross. That commitment has gotten me through so many moments of doubt and struggle. For the rerecord, the band picks up a song they've barely touched since then. You can hear a band that has changed without this song, but that still fits them. In fact, the defiant hope of the lyrics has become more and more commonplace in Jon's song-writing over the years since. The crisp guitar tones add a layer of frenetic energy to the voices while the synths, increased in the mix, give the chorus more of a lift. The song has more sonic dynamics. It almost sounds to me like the band have grown into this song.

7. The Beautiful Letdown

Bass and drum heavy tracks with sonic textures like this one have become more commonplace for Switchfoot since this title track with songs like BA55, Say It Like You Mean It, Skin and Bones, even Float, Native Tongue, and the bass and drum focused album Vice Verses. I felt the sound of the rerecord could have fit easily on Native Tongue, carrying the best of that album, but with stronger song-writing. It also showcases effects on Jon's vocals that are now normal, but didn't feature on the original, along with vocoder background vocals. This track proves some of their more recent albums' flaws are not because of the production, but because the writing on this classic album was better. My only gripe with the rerecord is that I wish the electric guitars were further up in the mix and stranger a la Interrobang. In an era where Christians are falling into the trap of cultural tribes, this song's declaration of "I don't belong here, gonna set sight and set sail on the Kingdom come" feels more needed than ever. And it sounds like it belongs to this moment.

8. Gone

The original version of this song is fun in a unique way that feels specific to its time. There are lots of cultural references that are now somewhat dated. Attempts to update them (replacing Lexus with Tesla) just don't have the same ring. As a piece of song-writing and production, this song feels specific to its moment. The rerecord can't capture that specific time. The band in concerts even refer to this song as a "throw-back", despite playing Meant to Live and Dare You to Move in the same show. Maybe that just proves the core message of the song. "We are not infinite/We are not permanent/Nothing is immediate/And we pretend like we're immortal". Proving that sentiment true in a small way is not a loss, but its own victory, one we still ought to heed as our increase in technology has only furthered our tendency to "pretend like we're immortal". With that said, a song this good, even in its lesser rerecord, is still a fun listen.

9. On Fire

On Fire is an example of Switchfoot's ability to connect with all kinds of people. For Jon Foreman, this song is about his relationship with God. But for his co-writer, Daniel Victor, who is not a Christian, this song is about romantic love. This song points to how we all, regardless of our beliefs, recognize love between human beings, and that love is an echo of the loving Creator and Redeemer who made and sustains our existence. This song remains beautiful in the rerecord. It has the real feel of a live performance. The exquisite arpeggiated chord progression is played on a real grand piano rather than a keyboard and that makes a huge difference. Jon's mature voice highlights the yearning of the lyrics. There are distinct electric guitar parts and delay swoops not on the original that have been developed live by Drew Shirley. It makes me wonder if this is the track to feature the additional guitar work he is credited with returning to provide for this release. This song comes out all-the-better for years of playing it live.

10. Adding to the Noise

Adding to the Noise was one of my favorite songs on this album as a middle schooler from its fun guitar hook to catchy chorus. The song reflects the band's desire to not just add one more consumer product to the market. The ways I have seen them impact my life and the lives of others by giving us songs that reflect our struggles and hopes shows to me they have always been more than that. (Yet a rerecorded release of an album that was already double platinum might be pretty close to just another consumer product). The rerecord is just as fun as the original with more distorted guitar tones and Jon's vocal delivery playing up the fun rhythms of the melody. The piano at the conclusion is higher in the mix giving the song an added layer of fun.

11. Twenty-Four

Jon wrote this song the day before his 25th birthday. I remember listening to it on repeat the day before by 25th birthday and finding this song captured my own dissatisfaction of reaching that milestone still not who I wanted to be. The song is a prayer, handing those disappointments to God, asking Him to do something with our lives. I love the rerecord of this. It is great to hear their long-time collaborator, Keith Tutt, provide the cello parts in a way that stands out in the mix. Tim Foreman's background vocals are moved up in the mix and add one more color to this beautiful track. Not to mention, the piano is again played on a real grand piano instead of a keyboard. As I have moved past the age of 25 and Jon has moved far beyond it, we still need to pray this prayer.

12. In My Blood (B-Side)

On an album of rerecords, it felt great to hear a song we've never heard before. I love everything about this track, the acoustic verses, the heavy chorus, the lyrics, Jon's vocals ranging from screams to whispers. Thinking of when the song was written, it shows hints of where the band would go on their next album (and my personal favorite), Nothing Is Sound. It adds to the tradition of Jon singing about the brokenness in him, that is in all of us. It is that kind of honesty and self-reflection that has always resonated with me and that I appreciated from them, especially as they came out in a context of Christian music that is rarely honest about such things.

13. Monday Comes Around (B-Side)

I have never understood why this song didn't make the album, but was regulated to a B-Side on the deluxe version. I have heard the band say the same thing in recent livestreams! The original is a fun track with unique sonic guitar sounds for this era of the band, a fun chorus, and great harmonies, all in service of a song that talks about how our decisions have consequences. There is more to life than a good time, but contains moments we have to face ourselves. The rerecord is fun, but does not hold a candle to the original. I think they had an opportunity to play up the harmonies even more on the original that they miss. I would have also loved if they played up unique guitar effects, especially chorus. They play with some of that, but I think making the main guitar part in the intro and verses more distorted rather than a clean effect was a mistake. That would have helped the distorted electric on the chorus stand out more. I do enjoy the increased synths on the second verse and the electric guitar bridge is bigger than the original.

All in all, this is a fun rerecord, with some tracks proving to be improvements on the original and others not so much. I enjoyed this fresh revisiting of the original album. (Just please don't rerecord Nothing is Sound. That album is perfect and can't be done without Drew).

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Jun 26, 2023

ahhh just what I needed. I've got a long day of paperwork ahead of me at work, and now some inspiration to let the switchfoot catalogue run while I do it! The Legend of Chin is loaded up annnnnnd go!

Scott Carr, Jr.
Scott Carr, Jr.
Jul 02, 2023
Replying to

That is such a solid record! I hope you breezed through a lot of good tracks and a lot of paperwork!

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