More Than My Lonely Nation

By

The year was 2005. I was a junior in college, and it felt like the world was both beckoning me to a wide open future and coming apart at the seams.

We millennials may joke about the “dumpster fire” of the past few years, but I humbly submit that the fire sparked long ago, and I didn’t notice the smoke until the turn of the millennium. In 2004, I was finally old enough to vote in a Presidential election. Twitter and iPhones didn’t exist yet, but the ugly divisiveness of partisan politics was already sneaking into my life. The wounds of 9/11 were fresh and raw, the War on Terror was just beginning, anyone with cable TV could pick their 24 hour news cycle poison, and I was spending my days running between my small town comfort and the diverse world of a city university.

Oh, also the certainty I used to feel in my faith was beginning to crack. Just a little.

If anything, I needed music to capture the vague despair and fear and anger in the air and spin it into hope. I needed Switchfoot, a band I’d casually enjoyed since high school, and a record called Nothing is Sound.

Of all the bands I loved in my younger years (the time of life that supposedly shapes your musical tastes forever), there’s something about Switchfoot that continues to stick with me. If you listen to their early work — especially 1998’s fabulous New Way to Be Human — you find smart, philosophical songwriting tucked into a surf-punk vibe. Skip ahead twenty years to 2019’s Native Tongue and you find relentless hope in a world that seems to be perpetually on fire.

But I would humbly suggest Nothing is Sound might be their greatest achievement. It came just two short years after they broke big in the mainstream, but to some it was considered a commercial flop. Instead of peppy melodies and self-aware anthems, the sound took a darker tone and the lyrics dwelled on empty consumerism, disconnect, loneliness, and war. It’s Psalms and Ecclesiastes and Lamentations all at once. And somehow, in all that, it lands on hope in the end.

Permission to be angry. Permission to lament. Permission to, in spite of it all, not lose hope.

Just what a quiet, uncertain, and confused young woman in a lonely world needed.

I want more than my lonely nation

The album opens with dirty guitars and an introduction to an unnamed character: “she turns like the ocean / she tells no emotion… she’s been breaking up inside.” I’m only now realizing how 21 year old me, growing up and discovering the complicated ache of the world, might have recognized herself in this nameless “she.” The aggressive, dark-tinged rock hints toward a rage under the surface, while the lyrics address a weary loneliness, frustration, and longing to see the world set right. 

Two years before, this band declared “We want more than this world’s got to offer,” and it felt like a fist-pumping empowerment anthem. But here, the desire takes on a whole new urgency: “I want more than my desperation / I want more than my lonely nation.”

But how can the world be set right when the people tasked to care for it appear to tune out, chasing after empty pleasure? After all: 

We’re just numb and amused and
We’re just used to bad news and
We are slaves of what we want…

Or consider this line from from the most notable single “Stars”

Stars looking at a planet
Watching entropy and pain
And maybe start to wonder how the chaos in our lives can pass as sane.

Then there’s the Bob Dylan-inspired rumination “Happy is a Yuppie Word.” As the specter of war loomed large and the economic prosperity of previous decades came to an end, Foreman meditates on the failure of empires and empty consumerism, tapping into the well of full-on Ecclesiastical lament:

Everything fails 
Everything runs its course 
A time and a place 
For all of this love and war 
Everyone buys 
Everyone’s got a price
But nothing is new
When will all the failures rise
?

And so the story goes. “Nothing is new,” says the author of Ecclesiastes, and “Nothing is sound!” screams a singer into the pain. Nothing is steady, “nothing is right-side right,” and when I hear these words, I’m once again sitting on the university quad, wondering about the future and the pain of war and the violence of words and talking heads on TV news.

And in 2019… nothing is new, is it? The second-by-second social media news cycle, the pundits escaping the boundaries of cable news and pontificating from my phone, even Instagram squeezing pristine influencers and finely targeted ads between pictures of friends and their kids and their vacation photos.

I can’t help but think “Easier Than Love,” a song about commercializing sex to distract from loneliness, is an apt lament for the disconnection and perfectionism of the Instagram age: “It’s easier to fake and smile and brag… it’s harder to face our souls at night.” I can’t help but realize I’ve never related more to the unbridled roar of a line like “I pledge allegiance to a country without borders, without politicians.”

Nothing is new indeed.

“But these scars will heal”

If there’s one thing that has marked Switchfoot all these years though, it’s this: joy is inescapable. Somehow, even as they rail against the empty promises of a materialistic American Dream, there’s a hope that can’t be suppressed. You hear it in the album’s most joyful track, “We Are One Tonight,” an anthem of solidarity that would almost feel out of place if it wasn’t such a necessary counterpoint.

“And the world is flawed / but these scars will heal,” the song declares against all odds. Somehow, in the midst of fear and fighting and loneliness, healing waits. There’s still beauty, still sunshine on the edges of the shadows, still friendship and love and waves to catch and songs to sing.

When I listened in my early-twenties angst, I might have overlooked the more joyful songs. When I listen today though, I cling to them. And I can’t help but notice how the closer “Daisy” brings it all full circle. The album opens with the image of a woman who is “breaking up inside,” and ends with a gentle invitation and an affirmation. I’d like to think these two characters are the same person:

Open up your fist
This fallen world
doesn’t hold your interest
it doesn’t own your soul
Daisy, let it go…

We can’t escape the fallen world. We can rage against injustice, interrogate our desires, sit in our loneliness, and keep our gluttony in check. We can choose: will we be just another consumer, or will we live fully alive in the world as it is? If I had any quibble with these lines today, it would be that this fallen world does have interest, as I imagine all it can be. It’s a promise and a shadow of the world to come… and well… “the shadow proves the sunshine,” doesn’t it?

But no, it doesn’t own my soul either. Sometimes I need songs to remind me.

Click here to listen to Nothing is Sound on Spotify

Jen was born and raised in central Florida, but now lives in the strange land of southern New England. Her words have appeared in TS Poetry’s Every Day Poems, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she recently released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms. Some of her favorite things include used bookstores, good coffee, messing about in the kitchen, and local adventures with her husband Chris.


13 Comments

  1. blair akin

    this article speaks to my heart and soul. i have known about switchfoot for years, but in the last year, some dear friends promoted me to take another listen, urging me to look deeper than the ‘quasi-Christian’ label it had somehow earned in church and dive into the lyrics i had found confusing and the heavy rock i had at first found distracting. ‘each album is a complete piece of art’, they told me. i obediently listened. i am now a hopeless fan. or maybe, a hopeful fan—because a relentless search for truth and beauty in a world gone dark is exactly what i find in foreman’s lyrics. like you said, he doesn’t shy away from the brokenness and the pain. refreshingly, he embraces it in lyrics and ‘dirty guitars’… and lets the darkness juxtapose the brilliance of the Christian hope of undimmed beauty and perfect home. it made me so happy that the rabbit room published an article about switchfoot. it is like two sides of my artistic world suddenly being united. thank you, jen!

  2. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Blair, I’m so happy to hear that! Yes, I’ve been a fan for… oof… 20 years now, I guess? 🙂 Jon Foreman is one of my all time favorite songwriters… it’s amazing how these songs keep finding me wherever I am in life. Have you had a chance to dig into his solo albums yet? So much goodness in there. (You might enjoy this about the 25 in 24 documentary as well: https://rabbitroom.com/2018/04/jon-foremans-25-in-24/)

  3. Sillyoldbear

    Thanks for this beautiful reminder of an album I haven’t listened to for quite a while. I can resonate with a lot of what you said. There are a lot of Switchfoot songs I keep coming back to / that keep coming back to me – or that haven’t gone since I first heard them. “Only hope” is one of my “all-time-favorite” songs. And listening to “Where I belong” is never just listening; it always goes deep and makes me join in singing, longing, weeping and thankfully enjoying the time we have here.

  4. Joe Sutphin

    I worked a table for them in college, when they were on their first tour for Legend of Chin. They were such nice kids then, and I fell in love with their optimism and how it came through in their songwriting. I think Jon is one of the finest lyricists of our time. Switchfoot remains, nearly 25 years later, my favorite band. I’m not ashamed to not place some “off the grid”, underground sleeper as my favorite instead. Switchfoot’s songs and lyrics full of hope and challenge have seen me through many different situations in life. They are the most positive rock band I can find, who actually make great music, and they manage to constantly remain relevant to current music trends, without sounding too much like current musicians. I’m not sure which album is my favorite though, and partially because I have most of their catalogue on my phone on shuffle, which are so great together. (minus “Chin”, “Human” and “Breathe”, which to me don’t have the same musical continuity that “Letdown” and after have.)

  5. blair akin

    @jen jon foreman’s solo albums were actually what softened me to the world of switchfoot to begin. i was immediately captivated by his raw, introspective lyrics as well as the recurring themes of life and beauty. interestingly, at the time, i was discovering john piper’s concepts of Christian hedonism and the two intellectual currents in my life–jon foreman’s lyrics and john piper’s theology–inseparably clicked. i watched the documentary a few weeks ago and it was pure delight. thanks so much for sharing!

  6. Drew Miller

    Jen, thanks for this. I’ve been singing “The Blues” all week, especially in the wake of last weekend. “Does justice never find you? Do the wicked never lose? Is there any honest song to sing besides these blues? And nothing is okay until the sky falls down, and the hungry and the poor and deserted are found…” I can barely type those lyrics without tears forming in my eyes. Potent as ever.

  7. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Drew, ahhh I wanted so badly to talk about The Blues, but I couldn’t figure out how/where to fit it in. So good I feel like any words I come up with would come short.

  8. Nathan Bubna

    Honestly, i always saw Nothing is Sound as ho-hum with a few standouts. I think i just wasn’t in the right mental place for it. Thanks for letting me hear it again a bit through your ears. Listening again now, and appreciating it more than ever.

  9. Chinwe

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve listened to this album a few times now since I first read this. As someone else mentioned, “The Blues” is so so moving this week. I also was able to share it with a friend (and fellow Switchfoot fan) who has been going through a tough time, and had also forgotten about this album. We have both been listening and getting soothed by it all week. Beauty in the pain, and the hope that it will be (has been) redeemed!

  10. Santosh & Shiny

    Thanks for this, Jen. We are a Switchfoot family, and attended our first concert together in Atlanta earlier this year, after we moved here to plant an intentionally multi ethnic church. All five of us have our favorite songs and albums. Every track you mention from Nothing Is Sound has been sung aloud together on road trips; Stars, Shadow Proves The Sunshine, and We Are One Tonight probably agreed upon the most. But when we were at the Tabernacle, and watched them perform…and we sang along…man, the Joy and the Hope is so palpable. Our kids remarked, “It’s like they really believe what they’re singing!” Out of the mouth of babes. I really don’t know if better compliments can be paid than that.

    Recently they filmed their interaction with musicians from Bangladesh, and man…it made our eyes rain. As one who wants to curate multi ethnic expressions of truth and beauty, I would love to meet the band and engage them on that experience. And Jon has been such a great brave voice in urging folks to listen to and read the works of Dr. John Perkins. We really are thankful for their music – produced and performed – and their celebration of what it means to be image bearers. Thank you again for reminding us of these things.

    Now if you ever write something about Vice Verses, all five of our small family – including the five year old – may post separate comments.

  11. Jen Rose Yokel

    @jroseyokel

    Santosh & Shiny… I love this so much! I’ve definitely had the same thought as your kids: “It’s like they really believe what they’re singing!” That and there’s just so much joy and love for the audience radiating from what they do. I think that’s why I’ve stuck around as a fan for so long.

    I missed the Bangladesh video, but I’ll be sure to check it out. And… Vice Verses is probably my second favorite album so I could totally gush about it too, haha. I don’t know if you two will be at Hutchmoot again this year, but if you are, I would love to hear about your church. And geek out about Switchfoot with you. 🙂

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