Saturday, May 10, 2014

album review: 'glorious' by foxes

Now when I made my year-end list for the Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 2013, I always make a point of taking a look at what other critics tend to hold up as their favourites in this category. And while there were certain songs that crossed multiple lists including mine, there was one that I couldn't in good faith put on my list: 'Clarity' by Zedd. Many critics considered it their favourite mainstream EDM song to chart, and I definitely understand why. It had a solid crescendo, a great backing chorus, and lyrics that managed to fit the broad scope of the song. And yet, I was never a big fan of the track in comparison with songs like 'Wake Me Up!' or 'Don't You Worry Child' - I found the beat a little underweight, the synthesizer line a little overstuffed, and the melody not all that impressive.

However, there was one person in that song who did stand out for many people, and that was Foxes, a British pop singer/songwriter whose soulful delivery and careful balance between ethereal distance and raw vulnerability really anchored the song. Now I was more familiar with her from 'Just One Yesterday', a song off of Fall Out Boy's gloriously messy album Save Rock and Roll, and if it wasn't for a few sloppy rhymes in the verses, it would have made one of my other year-end lists simply on atmospheric power and drama alone. And thus, I was interested to see where Foxes would take her debut album Glorious, because to be fair, I didn't have much of a grasp on her musical identity outside of her featuring credits. What was this new album going to deliver?

Well, I can say this - you all know those young-adult dystopian novels that are all getting made into movies right now? If any writer/director wanted to add some real teeth to the films and actually go for a bleak, downer ending, I would hire Foxes immediately, because Glorious is an album that could fit as a soundtrack to one of those films in a heartbeat. The title of the record is something of a contradiction, in that it's both completely apt in describing the sound but a little disproportionate when it comes to the subject matter. I'll get into this further, but now the basic question: is this record any good? Well, yes, but I'm not quite sure it's great or entirely earns the drama it's trying to evoke.

Okay, to explain this, we need to start with Foxes herself, who really does more than anyone to sell this record in her performance. The woman is a gifted singer with natural talent, a killer emotional delivery, and enough power to really sell the dramatic stakes of her songs. An interesting comparison with Foxes is Lykke Li,  as they both address similar subject matter, but while Lykke Li has more restraint and control on her dramatic emotions, Foxes is much more expressive but less subtle. It makes her a great fit for dance songs with a darker edge like 'Night Owls Early Birds' and the great 'Let Go For Tonight', but I'm not sure it's the best fit for the slew of breakup songs that pepper this album. I don't deny they work on a very visceral, vulnerable, emotional level, but as the album goes on, it begins to come across as a bit limited.

What definitely isn't limited is the instrumentation and production, which is probably my favourite part of this album, drawing on minimalist and dark indie pop and blending it with EDM's swell and bombast. And honestly, it's a great fit - the drums and percussion have a ton of energy while rarely drowning out the melody line, the ghostly electronic effects rarely feel out of place, the strings accompaniment slide in and out effortlessly, and outside of a few moments where Foxes' vocal track sounds a little quiet in the mix, the production is excellent. I love the off-kilter, twinkling on 'Holding Onto Heaven', especially when the song kicks into a quicker tempo, I dig the slow rumbling pulse of the beat in 'White Coats' balanced with the occasional thin jet of fuzz, I love the thick drums on 'Night Owls Early Birds', and pretty much whenever a piano line comes into this album, it just works for me. I won't say all of the synth choices win me over - the opening track 'Talking To Ghosts' has a line that feels a little too nasal for my tastes, and in 'Shaking Heads' it's a little too clattering to blend well with the smoother production - but for the most part, it really works for me.

So why don't I just love this album? Well, now we come to the songwriting and... look, it's her debut album, and these sorts of records always need a little time to establish some momentum when it comes to songwriting, but even on that standard, the songwriting is pretty far from great on this record, especially on a technical level. To give credit to Foxes, it's easy to overlook them because her voice has such a natural flow, but look, we don't live in a world where 'heavy' rhymes with 'severed', and that's just one example. But that's nitpicking, what's the bigger picture of this album? Well, for one, it's not one to be read as a coherent album statement and should be viewed as more of a collection of singles - and you know, on that level it kind of works pretty damn well. 

But at the same time, it's also an album that really only has two types of songs: the 'young, wild & free quasi-empowerment-but-not-really' song, and the break-up track. And you know, in the first camp Foxes brings a little more variety and nuance, and her delivery really does help emphasize the desperate recklessness of youth trying to hold onto their freedom in an increasingly hostile world. But in the break-up song territory, it quickly becomes apparent that behind the occasionally pretty description and Foxes' great performance, there isn't a lot here. 'Talking To Ghosts' and 'Echo' are pretty much the same type of 'barely-holding-it-together' break-up songs, and 'Holding Onto Heaven' and 'Count The Saints' aren't far removed from that either, both describing relationships Foxes knows aren't great but she's still head-over-heels for the guy in question. But that's the level of lyrical nuance we're getting here on this album - there are several pretty turns of phrase but little else. And combined with Foxes very potent but not particularly complex delivery, there are several songs that can come across as melodramatic, not a good sign when Foxes is taking this album so seriously. Maybe a broader emotional range here could have helped, but when the nuance in the songwriting just isn't here, these songs come across as a little adolescent - which might have been her intention and will certainly resonate with teenage boys and girls everywhere, but doesn't exactly click with me.

But look, in the end, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this album. I've always liked bombast in this vein, and when Foxes kicks things into a quicker tempo, she delivers some stellar pop songs. But outside of her delivery, I'm not exactly in love with her songwriting, especially on the break-up songs. Now, granted, it's pop music, and I'm not expecting huge amounts of nuance or wit, but there's definitely room for improvement here. So with that in mind, and the fact that this is a debut album, I'm giving Foxes' Glorious a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of bombastic British pop music. But for me, I'd like to see Foxes push her boundaries a little further - I liked the desperate, youth-rebellion inspired tracks, they show a lot of promise. So if you're hunting for that sort of song - or you're just looking for an overwrought break-up track - Foxes does deliver there.

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