People Who Create Awesome Things: Jon Foreman

Back when this blog was more personal, I started a series called “People Who Create Awesome Things,” but I ran out of steam and quit doing them a while back. Well, I had a little time this afternoon and thought I’d use it to write about another one of those people, one of my all-time favorite singers, Jon Foreman.

My first introduction to Jon Foreman was in early 2003, when “Gone,” from Switchfoot’s amazing fourth album, The Beautiful Letdown, was ubiquitous on the Christian radio airwaves. Switchfoot, the band Jon Foreman fronts, was eagerly claimed by the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry in those days because they were so good and also had some Christian roots, even though they were never as overt about it as many CCM artists back then. But they made refreshingly good music that I couldn’t help but listen to.

Even listening to him was an act of rebellion in those days. CCM was strictly forbidden in the ultra-conservative bible college my wife and I attended. Profaning the truths of the Lord with the beat of rebellion, sex and the devil. All that jazz.

The song was catchy and different and it basically just belabored the point of human mortality in unremitting detail. So I bought the album and found out that “Gone” was the weakest track of the whole album. “Meant to Live,” “This is Your Life,” “More than Fine” – all those soaring dramatic ballads packed out the album. I enjoyed every song in one way or another. It was the best music I was listening to at the time.

Their following album was Nothing Is Sound, which I bought as soon as it came out. Musically it was their best album yet. For the first time, it fully embraced the dark mournful undercurrent of much of their earlier work. Many of the tracks made it into my selective “sad song” playlist, where they enjoyed plenty of listening. Songs like “The Blues,” “The Setting Sun,” and “The Fatal Wound” flesh out the melancholic timbre of the album. A couple of my favorites were the back-to-back “Happy Is a Yuppie Word” and “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine,” which provides a needed glimpse of hope, like the first ray of sunshine after the rain.

Following albums continued to deliver further solid and eminently listenable music, with deeply emotional and expressive themes ranging from despair to triumph, each fully believable in its own way. “Awakening,” “Hello Hurricane,” “Yet,” “Sing It Out,” “Vice Verses” . . . I’ll quit there, but the point is, they’ve put out a lot of stellar music.

But that’s just background to the theme of this post, which is Jon Foreman’s solo work. Beginning in the Fall of 2007, Jon Foreman began what would become two four-part series of EPs – first came “Fall,” “Winter,” “Spring,” and “Summer,” then came The Wonderlands: “Sunlight,” “Shadows,” “Darkness,” and “Dawn”.

These solo projects became some of my all-time favorite albums. The songs are so varied and heartfelt, beautifully written and emotively performed. They showcase the stripped-down Jon Foreman, just his bare heart singing out the themes of his life and struggles, in some of the best and simplest music that I’ve ever listened to. He says a lot of things in these tracks and I believe everything he says. I don’t say that about a lot of artists.

One of the things I appreciate about Jon Foreman’s music is that he doesn’t see the need to always put a positive spin on things. When he sings out his grief he truly sings it out, without muting its essence with lighter strains. Then, when he sings out his hope and optimism and triumph he likewise sings it out fully. But the thing is, I don’t think I would trust the heights of optimism that he leads me up to in his music if I hadn’t also followed him through the depths of his struggles. Jon Foreman has tasted many of the same bitter doubts and losses that we all have had to go through at times in our lives. He doesn’t try to change or deny those realities, he just gives musical expression to them.

Some of my favorite songs from these EPs include “The Cure for Pain,” “Southbound Train,” “Equally Skilled,” “Learning How to Die,” “Somebody’s Baby,” – again, the list could go on but I’ll quit. The soul that Jon Foreman reveals is multi-faceted and deep and expresses a vibrant Christian faith, which can be seen in the faithful biblical themes of many of the songs, coming from both the well known and the harder and more obscure passages. What’s more, it’s a faith that I actually believe, because I’ve been listening to him for so long and I’ve never heard anything in his voice that I don’t trust.

So the other day, to get to the end of my rambling point, I came across “Terminal,” a song that I hadn’t heard (or paid attention to, anyway) and it blew me away. It’s one of several songs throughout my life that I’ve become obsessively fixated on for a time. I listened to it maybe a dozen times a day for a couple weeks. I don’t know why or how it works, but it was such a healing, strengthening song for me.

I actually do have a theory about how it works: I think that we have a tendency to restrain our negative emotions, which causes a lot of problems. Emotions vibrate at a certain frequency and if you bottle them up those frequencies get stuck in your brain and cause all sorts of health problems and energy disturbances in your body. Counter-intuitively, the way to free our mind from old stuck emotions is not to fight them, but to express them, so they can play themselves out and be done. That’s why I always experience healing from listening to sad songs when I’m sad, or angry songs when I’m angry, or whatever. I’ve learned that it’s best to “Sing it Out,” as Jon Foreman says, so the emotions don’t get stuck. That’s my theory, anyway, but all I know for sure is that the song, with it’s unflinching expression of human death and mortality, has been very healing to my heart. I like it because there are no platitudes or blandishments – no, “It could be worse,” no “It’s all for a purpose,” no “But there’s a silver lining” – it’s just an honest reaction to the undeniable fact of human tragedy. And as such I find it beautiful and hopeful. The music itself is so beautiful and inspired I just can’t quit listening.

I know I mentioned a lot of songs, but I thought I would link to just one, in case anyone’s been reading and wants a sample. If you have been patient enough to keep reading this far, thank you for gifting me with your time. 🙂 If you have a few minutes to spare, I think you’ll enjoy this song by Jon Foreman, “You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are.” It’s a good example of several of his customary themes. I truly believe him when he sings And I want to know who you really are / I want to meet you here tonight”. A friend invited me to a Jon Foreman concert this summer and although I couldn’t attend, I think that if I had gotten the chance to meet him, he really would want to know who I really am. Just like he would want to know who you really are. Maybe that’s what makes his music so powerful to me. Whatever it is, I’m thankful for his honest, passionate art and his willingness to share it with us.

I’ll post the lyrics to the song, as well as a link to the video.

We’re the kids who’ve seen the darkness / Always looking for the light.”

Happy afternoon, friends. 🙂

You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are

Lyrics to “You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”

We learn to wear these masks so young

Like a prison that keeps joy from getting through

And an angry silence grips our tongues

These weapons and our walls become our tombs

We’re the kids who’ve seen the darkness

Always looking for the light

You fall in love and then the rain comes down

And only part of you survives

– Chorus –

Come surrender

Your hidden scars

Leave your weapons

Where they are

You’ve been hiding

But I know your wounded heart

You don’t know how beautiful you are

I’m tired of hiding who I really am

Underneath these alibis

And I want to know who you really are

I want to meet you here tonight

We were not born with these defenses

We’re not destined for this pain

We hide ourselves and put the fig leaves on

But a mask can never cover up this shame

– Chorus –

Where we’re headed

Is a world apart

From where we started

We’ve come so far

I’ll take my chances

Honey, you can have my heart

You don’t know how beautiful you are

Love surrender!

(let your walls come down)

– Chorus –

Future gardens

From all this rain

Future flowers

From present pain

We’re bound together

And our lives are bound to change

You don’t know how beautiful you are

– Chorus –

And all the ashes

From all these dreams

I’ve seen the beauty

Of fallen leaves

Someday maybe we’ll find out what it means

You’ll find out how beautiful you are

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