Saturday, November 3, 2018

album review: 'nearer my god' by foxing

So over the past few months I think some folks have gotten the impression that I've been more harsh or negative than usual - and while it's true that I've found less albums that I'd say are easy fits for the best of 2018, let's flip the script a little bit and talk about a trend in indie rock that I've actually come to like a fair bit. See, as a part of the success of the third wave of emo in the 2010s, over the past few years we've seen an expanded wave of rock artists dig deeper into raw, emotive territory but harness a little bit more maturity and poise, splitting the difference between over-educated detachment and the painful realization so much of that will not save them anymore - don't look at me like that, we all get to that age!

And make no mistake, this is a thematic trend that might have been primed by the third wave of emo, but it's bled enough into indie rock and alternative rock that it's hard to not think the pretentious coffeehouse hipsters of the early 2010s are having midlife crises, from the wine-soaked breakdowns of the older guard like Josh Tillman and Matt Berninger to the over-educated angst of Will Toledo to the palpable angst of Deaf Havana and The Wonder Years. And somewhere in the middle, inhabiting an intricate blend of post-hardcore rage, post-rock atmospherics, and indie rock meticulousness, we have Foxing. And honestly, I should have tackled this band months ago, because from the reckless, ramshackle howling of their debut The Albatross in 2013 to the more intricate and reserved fragmentation of Dealer two years later, Foxing were definitely inhabiting this lane, and with their third album Nearer My God primed to blow everything up on steroids with their longest and most explosive project to date, I definitely wanted to take this in, so what did we get?

Oh wow, I was not expecting this whatsoever, and before I get into the discussion of this album proper which I should have done two months ago, I want to make a disclaimer: the appeal and target audience of this album in particular should be narrower than it is. Because Nearer My God might as well be tailor-made for the audience of guys like me that I just described, and paradoxically it will be the critics in this audience who'll praise this to high heavens - as they already have - even though to the majority of audiences, this'll reek of pretension, privilege, and overwrought angst to the extreme. And if Foxing weren't looking to deconstruct the everloving shit out of all that, I'd say this was utterly insufferable, and to someone outside of the target audience that I described, I can absolutely see this album not connecting whatsoever. But as someone who is in that niche... yeah, this is one of the best rock albums of the year, and paradoxically falls into the bizarre niche of likely making a lot of critic lists while taking a sledgehammer to the genre those critics love.

And that's where this conversation has to start, because I'm a big fan of deconstruction and albums that tear into their own genre - it's the reason to this day I consider EL VY's Return To The Moon one of the best albums of the 2010s, mostly because it takes the paradigm of 2010s hipster relationships - and the music made about it and the artists who make that music - and guts them on the floor. And make no mistake, Foxing is doing something very similar but on a bigger scale, basically calling the bluff of the angst of white, over-educated, privileged indie rock and emo and asking what that really means in 2018. And this is not subtext, this is the text of songs that are in full-fledged drunken meltdown for the first half of the album, and if you haven't clued in by the second song 'Slapstick' that you're not supposed to like or sympathize completely with the protagonist in apocalyptic melodrama, you're going to hate this album, full stop. Because this is an album that starts with happiness just out of reach and then spends its first half flaying itself alive in an attempt to achieve it, with the subject of 'Slapstick' being Donald Trump's continuous flailing attempt to find something to fill the overprivileged void within and constantly demanding for more doors to be opened for him to fail again and again. And note the usage of the first person - Foxing is very clearly drawing a universal parallel to all overprivileged white guys, and that analogy continues into 'Lich Prince' in how that guy can be a soul-sucking terror in relationships, and then it's followed with 'Gameshark', showing how privilege can cheat the system and while there's a palpable feeling of disgust and guilt in abusing that, there's also a heady rush that plays to one's worst instincts... until it doesn't. Then you get the title track, because Foxing is smart enough to realize for as much as you're flailing for attention and validation in your self-destruction and how it might just be easier to become the 'pool boy of music', to be told an artistic direction instead of creating and falling apart... even the creation is hollow, and increasingly people don't give a shit, so you get the slow-motion artistic suicide of 'Five Cups' and the framing blurs even further between tragic immolation and pitiable self-indulgence...

And then the album shifts. The visceral thrill of the first half of which can feel way too comfortable is confronted with reality on 'Heartbeats', where the genre deconstruction snaps into view: because like with How To Dress Well, the self-destruction becomes performative, because there's an audience of guys like me who guiltily will embrace it regardless of self-awareness. So the script is flipped - 'Heartbeats' includes on the hook the line 'stop playing around' - and the album starts digging into the guts of where some of that angst might be rooted; not invalidating it, but not indulging it either. 'Trapped In Dillard's' is a great example of this, showing him amidst banal suburban consumerism silently judging a girl who has found faith... and he wouldn't spend so much of the song repeating his message if he wasn't trying to partially convince himself. This comes back on 'Crown Candy', which flips Pascal's wager surrounding belief in god and how performative that can be in both life and love especially if it feels performative and wasted... but it's not like he's stopping, because it's the same search for something real that he doesn't want to fully admit that he's following just like everyone else. It's one reason why 'Bastardizer' hits so damn hard, tapping into pretty much every guy's complicated relationship with father figures only to reveal how much of it is perpetuated in them good and bad, and I love how the production of the song is drenched in mid-to-late 80s heartland rock in its guitar tones - some things really do stay the same. And that growth of populism gives the final two songs their power, because in rejection of the system and the privilege that allows you to game it, it'll throw the kitchen sink to crush you down like everyone else... but it only seems all the more hollow for as hard as they try. And I love how 'Lambert' returns to the heavenly metaphors of the opening cut, where the walled off salvation and happiness is still out of reach - symbolized through airports where destination windows are ever shrinking - but instead of the sanctimonious entitlement for it, there's a weary resignation in the fact that those who might stray but still try could deserve the entry too, and in the face of everything tumbling down - the album cover was none too subtle in its metaphor of the four horsemen of the apocalypse - despite all the walls thrown up, we're all in this struggle together.

And that's just the content, of which I freely admit I may have completely overanalyzed! But I'll be very honest, the album had done such a powerful job winning me over in the songwriting that praising the actual music kind of fell by the wayside, but this is exactly what I wanted from Foxing, bringing the raw intensity to match the over-arranged production and shamelessly sell the bombast. I'll freely admit it took a while to get onboard with any of Conor Murphy's falsetto vocals, and the layering of them against rougher, lower tones can sound screechy and disquieting, but for what this album is putting forward, it works, especially the ominous pianos and brittle guitar plucks that punch into the heavier, roiling groove, which also fits for the drunker, blubbery atmospherics of 'Slapstick' where the surging groove becomes just as sharp. And it's that same desperate charge that gives the grimy, noisy scratch of 'Gameshark' its melodic punch against that killer bassline, and makes the huge hooks of 'Lich Prince' and the title track connect even though both songs sound like the sort of oversold anthems that The 1975 would sell straight and that with this lyrical content Foxing absolutely should not. Hell, you could argue splitting the transgressive distance gives the gleaming title track its power... something I can't quite say the spacious, nine minute slow motion collapse of 'Five Cups' pulls off quite as well, even if I do think there's just enough momentum in the shuddering bassline, roaring guitars, fractured strings, horns, samples, and extended skipping outro to make it worthwhile. Thank God Foxing takes some of that elegance and repurposes it to paradoxically (somewhat) ground the histrionics on 'Heartbeats', or embrace the fractured beeping stutter of 'Trapped In Dillard's', or even the bagpipes they bring into the oldschool heartland rock of 'Bastardizer'. And I like how while this album could be perceived to flag in energy with 'Five Cups', it somehow keeps up its exhausting momentum into the driving acoustics of 'Crown Candy' but is confident to give both it and and the strings/accordion combination driving the skittering drums and bass of 'Won't Drown' slightly more offkilter but instrumentally cohesive melodic interludes, and leaving 'Lambert' to lean more heavily on spare, echoing post-rock... until it just goes for broke with drummer Jon Hellwig likely holding up as the unsung MVP on this project - seriously, just for consistent the grooves are and how much driving power the percussion has without feeling overstated or dominant against such dense arrangements, I have to give major props.

But as I said before, this album is absolutely not for everyone: grandiose and ambitious in the extreme and disquieting in its emotive rawness, it's the sort of record that to some will seem histrionic, oversold, and to some even unnecessary - hell, from the first half it makes a pretty great argument against its own existence, only to find some degree of paradoxical validation at its very human conclusion. For me, it's an absolute tour de force that justifies the insane risk of it all - a project like this could have gone wrong in so many ways - and the go-for-broke power of an album like Nearer My God is undeniable, netting a 9/10 from me and the highest of recommendations... provided, of course, you follow the disclaimer I made early in this review. But if you do and this sort of emo/indie rock is up your alley... well, this album might just set that alley on fire, but man, it's worth it.

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