Switchfoot/Nickel Creek collaboration hardly cohesive
Based on the players—Jon Foreman, lead singer of multi-platinum Christian rock band Switchfoot, and Sean Watkins, guitarist for Grammy-winning newgrass band Nickel Creek—you might expect radio-ready pop songs with a bluegrass flair from Fiction Family’s self-titled debut. Opener “When She’s Near” is a little misleading (albeit delightful)—all jingle-jangle and pop harmonies, it’s much sunnier than the subsequent 11 songs; more Switchfoot than Nickel Creek. Fiction Family mostly comes off as a Jon Foreman solo record, featuring The Guy from Nickel Creek Who’s Not Chris Thile.
The softly orchestrated “Betrayal” and the creaky “Mostly Prove Me Wrong” could be B-sides from Foreman’s Winter EP (a fourth of his moody solo project based on the seasons). In his own songs—a majority of the record—Foreman’s M. Wardian vocals share the spotlight with his sentimental but gritty lyrics. He goes wild with similes and metaphors and other literary devices you learn about in middle school (“her eyes were like the winter,” “love is red, love is a dollar that’s already spent,” “we were both drinking fiction,” “there’s war in my blood,” etc.), but it’s rarely trite, and otherwise cryptic lyrics balance his sometimes-precious wordplay. “Betrayal” typifies Foreman’s lyrical style: “I watched her as you put me in the dirt / She had my wallet wrapped inside her skirt / And I went numb, I went numb / So I’m not dead if what you did don’t hurt.”
Watkins’ lyrics, on the other hand, are cute at best: In the pitchy “Elements Combined,” he sings, “You are elements combined / Earth, air, fire, wine / Someday you’ll be mine,” and the mopey “Not Sure” is as bland as its title: “How long will it take / For these ties to you to break / They’re much stronger than I thought / I’m not sure that I’ll get over you / I’m not sure that I want to.”
While Watkins’ higher voice harmonizes well with Foreman’s, his lead vocals aren’t as strong. The three songs that are entirely written and led by Watkins feel like wet rags—hearing Foreman’s voice at the beginning of a song is more of a relief than it should be, considering that the guys are supposed to be equal partners in this Family. Foreman says in the band’s bio, “We came up with a few cowboy rules for the project: No double tracking. No pussyfooting. No tuning of vocals. etc.” The no-tuning rule is admirable, but it becomes a distraction because Watkins doesn’t always sing on-key.
A Christian undertone emerges in “Closer Than You Think,” a song about a clichéd afterworld with a singsong melody to match, co-written by Foreman and Watkins. “The sky is much more blue / And the clouds are always white / The streets of course are gold / And always lit with rays of light / There’s nothing on this earth / That’s as good as what’s up there / Life is so much better / When you’re floating in the air.” (Somewhere in heaven, an angel is rolling its eyes.) Granted, those who pay close attention to the bridge (“Never mind your sister / When she asks you silly questions / About all the broken people left unfed”) or Foreman’s solo career (“You turned your back on the homeless / And the ones that didn’t fit in your plans / Quit playing religion games / There’s blood on your hands,” from Spring and Summer’s “Instead of a Show”) will pick up on some sarcasm, but in order to make such a statement, an artist should go beyond mimicking the culture he’s criticizing. For every fan who gets the hint, a casual listener who’s wary of mainstream Christian culture will consider this song part of the problem.
While Watkins’ coffeehouse fare is the weak link here, Foreman’s songs, and Watkins’ contributions to Foreman’s songs, make the record worthwhile. Foreman is an excellent writer, singer and arranger, and Watkins’ accompaniment on harmony vocals, guitar, bass, keys—even mandolin, ukulele and 12-string—lighten the intensity and add a rich earthiness.
Since both Switchfoot and Nickel Creek were touring during this record’s gestation, Foreman and Watkins wrote songs individually and passed them back and forth in parts. They make a pretty solid team as-is, but if their approach to songwriting were more unified, their sound probably would be, too.