I confess I had a hard time making sense of Switchfoot’s new album, “Where the Light Shines Through,” at first. I’d read that frontman Jon Foreman said it was the product of one of the darkest times he’d ever been through, and then I listened to the album and thought, really?
The songs of “Where The Light Shines Through” are not the creative product you’d expect to emerge from a place of pain and difficulty. Most of the songs are not sad dirges or tragic laments, strictly speaking. They’re the kind of tunes that lift your head up, that make you smile, that send your feet moonwalking on the ceiling.
It didn’t make sense. Songs about wounds aren’t supposed to be warm summer rock tunes that make you want to roll down the car window or crack open a cold one.
But I kept listening, and soon I began to see the album’s starting point of pain and loss. It’s in the blackened Southern California landscape scorched by wildfires. It’s in the orphans and refugees of the Middle East, looking for a way to float above the trials and tribulations that have devastated their homes. It’s in the way we fall apart better than we fall in love. It’s in the wound that can’t be numbed with the bottom of a bottle. It’s in the Choctaw and the Cherokee that America will never see.
It seemed like there was a disconnect there, but perhaps a better word is “tension.” “Where the Light Shines Through” is stretched to the poles of the human experience with the tension between how things are and how they should be (the signature tension, incidentally, that marks every Switchfoot album). Darkness is pierced by light, fear and despair run parallel with hope and confidence, slow moments of contemplation give way to the raw, energetic life of rock and roll.
As Annie Dillard said, this is the only honest way to live. “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here,” she once wrote. “Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
Disconnect and tension. Swaddling bands of darkness and songs of praise. Could these paradoxical places be the intersections of joy?
I believe they are, because joy is mysterious like that. It springs up in the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times. You can’t predict it, can’t summon it by force of will, can’t earn it – only accept it as a gift.
We often miss this in the modern age because we conflate joy with happiness, and our longing for the former drives us to pursue the latter. But happiness is a yuppie commodity (at least that’s what the billboards tell us). It has a knack for lingering just out of reach. Maybe we try to bridge the gap with a salary increase or vacation or a lover, and yet it keeps drifting away, and all the while everything around us fails and runs its course.
“Where the Light Shines Through” reminds me that something runs deeper and truer through our lives than the American pursuit of happiness. It proclaims that there’s a purpose and redemption out there that only shows up at the point of despair – that hope appears most bright and burning just when its object seems furthest away. We find meaning at the brink. We encounter the healer only after we’ve been wounded.
That’s something worthy of rock and roll – something worth singing out when our hearts are beating like blown speakers. The healer of souls is out there, holding out a hand to the wounded and broken, offering a freedom that isn’t contingent on the appearance of our scarred bodies or the size of our bank account or the quality of our political leaders.
That’s my takeaway from “Where the Light Shines Through.” It’s an exercise in being surprised by joy, a proclamation that even in the hardest, saddest moments of our lives, hope deserves not a lament, but an anthem.