Had a dream the other night that The New Yorker sent me to Oklahoma to profile a group of religious fundamentalists who turned out to be far more reasonable than heathen blue-state denizens expect. I sat in a spacious living room decorated to resemble the lobby of a cozy country inn and told 25 or 30 people who believe in lots of things I don’t that they’d really surprised me—that they should be the ones on Nightline and in Newsweek explaining why they’d re-elected George W. Bush, not the reactionary ideologues New Yorkers and Los Angelenos are always imagining populate the suburban McTundra that separates us.
Blame Switchfoot, the San Diego Christian-rock quartet whose major-label breakthrough, The Beautiful Letdown, might be the most intelligent, least hysterical piece of alt-rock evangelism I’ve ever heard—and, yep, that’s even counting Pedro the Lion! Throughout the album, frontman Jon Foreman, a shaggy blond-haired Owen Wilson look-alike, floats sentiments Ralph Nader would find safe at any speed: “We want more than the wars of our fathers”; “I want to see miracles, to see the world change.” Foreman proselytizes like one of those old hippie dudes you see outside Borders reading bad poetry; he wants to save you, but not if it means surrendering the intellectual privilege shaggy blond-haired dudes receive with a birth certificate.
So he’s a thinker in addition to a believer—which doesn’t mean that his hard-hitting questions hit as hard as they should: “Blame it on your religions, blame it on your politicians,” he sings, without bothering to define “it” or the religions being blamed; in the tune’s bridge he implores us to “look at what a bomb we’ve made of love”—either a piquant indictment of the hubbub surrounding gay marriage, or a churlish indictment of gay marriage itself. In “Adding to the Noise” Foreman indulges in some moralist technophobia—”I’ll bet that that TV set tells us what we’ve wanted to hear,” he sneers, probably thinking of Will & Grace—but then questions his own band’s place in “the symphony of modern humanity” stretching from “the third world to the corporate core.”
Still, when the thinking gets mushy, the music bolsters Foreman’s missionary position. Letdown‘s default setting is a slick post-grunge churn, but Switchfoot keep folding in tastier flavors: bleached Massive Attack throb, breezy Alanis Morissette shuffle, clenched indie strum. In “Gone” they throw it all in—hip-hop beats, lite-funk guitar, free-associative barbershop harmonies—and make the follow-up to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” I was praying for.
Not sure if Adam Levine, frontman of L.A.’s Maroon 5, has a position on the missionary: Like 3EB’s Stephan Jenkins, he’s a full-blooded pop-rock pervert whose music evinces an unshakable belief in the power of pussy. Luckily for the ex-girlfriend around whom he wrote Songs for Jane, the band’s still-growing two-year-old debut, he seems into the freakier shit: “I guess I’d better find a new way in,” Levine sings in “Shiver,” a taut Middle Eastern–riffed soul-rock groove full of cheeky double entendres; “Does it kill?” he wonders over “Harder to Breathe” ‘s bar-band bump ‘n’ grind. “Does it burn?”
As with Foreman’s grappling with his conscience, Levine’s sexual politics occasionally lapse into casual senior-year cruelty, like in “Through With You,” where he’s just another emo chump blaming his heartache on a dishonest female. But more often than not he complicates the situation encouragingly: In “This Love” her heart gets to break too, and in “She Will Be Loved,” the band’s big-in-Kansas ballad, Levine actually admits, “It’s compromise that moves us along,” without sounding like James fucking Taylor. If you scour Billboard for proof that hating the flyover is OK, the tune is a beautiful letdown; if you listen, it’s comforting evidence that things aren’t as bad as we’d sometimes like them to be.
Switchfoot and Maroon 5 play Madison Square Garden December 10.