Perpetually Fading West

or, “Finding Where We Belong”

I don’t think an album title could generate more excitement in me than “Fading West”. Indeed, it wouldn’t be insincere of me to say I could append the hashtag #FadingWest to every social media post I’ve composed in the past half decade. The concept and combination of those two words feels right.

I’ve listened to Switchfoot for as long as I’ve listened to music. “The Beautiful Letdown” was one of the first albums I ever bought. In the past year, as I’ve contemplated who my biggest influences have been, Jon Foreman has remained in the forefront of my mind. His songs resonate deeply with me. I connect to his philosophies on life. I love the content and style of his writing, musical and otherwise. While Switchfoot is not necessarily my favorite band, I’ve always related to the themes of their music, and the trend continues on their ninth studio album, “Fading West”.

Switchfoot’s “Fading West”

“Fading West” lives in both the temporal and the eternal, the earthly and the celestial. While at once the themes of the band members’ love and longing for their home in Southern California lyrically and sonically permeate the songs, as always, their music points to something deeper. I’ve had a soft spot for Southern California for a long time, and I constantly feel tugged geographically westward. In fact, West as a concept holds significant gravitas for me. I’ve tried hard to trace the roots of this, but they are many, and far spread — from associations with good memories of my youth to adoption of elvish sensitivities from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. J.R.R. Tolkien’s scenes of the elves of Middle Earth sailing West from the Grey Haven’s are bittersweet and beautiful all at once. Annie Lennox’s song “Into the West” (which appropriately accompanies the credits of the third Lord of the Rings film) elicits this beautiful longing:

What can you see on the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea a pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home
Into the West

Ah! Here we come to the key word. Home. In the word “home”, the threads start to weave together and the tapestry begins to take its true shape. Why does my heart stir at the cry of the gulls? Because the call has been married (in my mind) to these deep themes reaching down into my heart. And if there is one thing Switchfoot sings about, it is about the yearning heart’s struggle to belong. I could link to a hundred different songs about “home”, and give a thousand definitions, for in part, home is defined by our individual experiences. What is the common thread? Is it where the ones we love reside? Is our home where we find safety and security? These are corollary, certainly. But I think the foundation of home is belonging. Home is where we belong.

Indulge me for a moment as I quote some of Switchfoot’s songs (including some from Jon Foreman’s solo EPs) to illustrate this motif they return to throughout their career.

“Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”
I’m trying to find where my place is
I’m looking for my own oasis
So close I can taste this
The fear that love alone erases
We’re only here for a season
I’m looking for the rhyme and reason
Why you’re born, why you’re leaving
What you fear and what you believe in

“Where I Belong”
I’m not sentimental
This skin and bones is a rental
Until I die I’ll sing these songs
On the shores of Babylon
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong

“Lord, Save Me From Myself”
This world is where I breathe
Let it never be called home

“I Am Still Running”
I had no idea the pain would be this strong
I had no idea the fight would last this long
Build me a home inside your scars
Build me a home inside your song
Build me a home inside your open arms
The only place I ever will belong

These lyrics do a much better job than I can do to succinctly sum up the longing to belong (and they barely scratch the surface of their songs that fit this theme). And the album “Fading West” uses this as the thematic anchor. With the first song, “Love is Worth the Fight”, this is established. From there they explore their identity (“Who We Are”) and their ability to influence the environment around them (“When We Come Alive” and “The World You Want”). The song “Slipping Away” is drawn from a quote by Flannery O’Connor which recognizes that it is no use trying to find belonging in our pasts: “Where you come from is gone.

The Pacific Ocean from Santa Monica Pier, 8/5/13

One of the most beautiful applications is found in the song which talks most about the temporal. “Saltwater Heart” reveals the liberation of knowing where you belong — it allows you to appreciate where you are for the short term. It is a song about surfing, about the Pacific Ocean and about the refreshing feeling of returning to a place you know and love. The band explores their “temporary belonging” in Southern California, embracing the opportunities we have to enjoy God and His Creation while we sojourn on earth, without mistakenly losing sight of the “better” to come. Here we find consonance with C.S. Lewis in his exposition of Nature: “How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her.”

What incredible release! We can love and appreciate God’s gift of Creation, enjoying it to the fullest without losing sight of the fact it is just that—a creation of His, not to be elevated too highly. When you hear Foreman talk about his love of surfing, I feel like you get a good idea of how this idea looks when practiced correctly. Ultimately, when you do “meet and know” where you find yourself now, you will recognize what you’re still missing in the midst of fully enjoying the moment.

My interpretation of fading west? It is fading West. In my experience, my perspective of earthly “west” reflects some qualities of the true West, because things I see and love there point to far better things to come. Don’t disagree with me until you’ve seen Big Sur with your own eyes. Conversely, its faults remind me I’m not home yet. But this specific correlation is based on my experience and taste, and the echoes vary from person to person. Regardless of what reminds us of where we are made for here on earth, as we move that direction, our earthly color will fade, being replaced with a brilliance which can only be glimpsed in the broken mirrors and shadowy pools of this life. Switchfoot understands this, and their songs convey the realization that this world we live in now cannot ultimately satisfy. They agree with C.S. Lewis’s observation, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” We pilgrim to the West, following the sun as it blazes a path ahead of us. We pilgrim to the place we were made for. We pilgrim Home.

I’ve saved the most hauntingly beautiful and accurate depiction of our existence for last. It is the chorus of the title track of the first Switchfoot CD I bought, “The Beautiful Letdown”.

In a world full of bitter pain and bitter doubt
I was trying so hard to fit in, fit in,
Until I found out, I don’t belong here
I will carry a cross and a song where I don’t belong

I hope I perpetually fade West in this sense, for what I am really doing is fading home, the only place I ever will belong.