Switchfoot’s Fading West doubles as the soundtrack to the San Diego alt-rock outfit’s identically titled documentary, which charts the band’s globe-trotting surfing exploits, which at least partly explains the album’s marked departure from the guitar-led stadium rock of their previous efforts. The album instead opts for chill synthesizers and buzzy basslines, an attempt at the kind of summery radio pop the retro-cool kids are making these days.
Much of Fading West, which tentatively dips its toes in the waters of electronica, world music, and psychedelic pop, comes on like a self-conscious attempt to diversify Switchfoot’s oeuvre, but it consistently drowns any glimpses of innovation in reverb, ocean metaphors, “whoa-oh” choruses, and a children’s choir. The production, bedecking the songs with burbling effects, borrows plenty of tricks from Brian Eno’s increasingly recognizable repertoire, while “When We Come Alive” and “Slipping Away” both sound like they could have been lifted from Coldplay’s synth-heavy Mylo Xyloto. Fresher moments include bassist Tim Foreman’s star turn on “Ba55,” a brash, seductive bit of rock with a synth-fuzz groove, and “Who We Are,” a tidy piece of electro-pop that sounds like a distant cousin to an MGMT tune, albeit with a sludgier chorus.
Jon Foreman’s ability to write hook-laden melodies remains, and he’s an often poetic and perspicacious lyricist, but the themes of redemption and hope on Fading West are too abstracted, frequently degenerating into cliché, as on “Love Alone Is Worth the Fight”: “Is it fear you’re afraid of?/What are you waiting for?/Love alone is worth the fight.” If love, forbearing as it is, is worth that much, it’s also worthy of a better line. What might have been intended as truths about the human condition ultimately prove to be platitudes that mistake the sentimental for the emotive. When Foreman yelps, “Is this the world you want?,” he thinks he’s asking for a revolution, but the sound is all too familiar.