A cloud of much-needed rejuvenation looms over the third album from Foxing. You could shuffle their first two records together and not notice a startling difference – they are two heart-pulping indie rock records that apply structure carefully in both minute and major forms to illustrate emotion in similar ways that other larger bands have succeeded in for years before.
That is not to say they are not special. Foxing write songs that cut deep, but quick to patch up. ‘Rory’ – a stand-out in their discography – concludes with Conor Murphy forcing out one last, “So why don’t you love me back?”, before igniting a trumpet solo. It is self-aware emo.
Since the release of 2015’s drenched ‘Dealer’, founding member and bass player Josh Coll departed. This swiftly followed frontman Conor Murphy’s solo attempt as Smidley. Foxing have been synonymous with expiration; their Bandcamp bio reads: “Foxing is a band. Someday Foxing won’t be a band.” With these recent events, you could have expected a Notes app screenshot confirming a break-up imminently.
Instead the Missouri band have used a three-year gap to create something not just limited to the familiar, but a piece where ambition and execution meet at a noisy, furious crossroad where the traffic lights are all constantly, cruelly green.
‘Nearer My God’, as the title suggests, is Foxing racing to the finish. It is determined and expectant, while ripping through barricades most bands would be cower behind. Opener ‘Grand Paradise’ is a Trojan horse. It wheels in a crisp synth loop Thirty Seconds To Mars could typically cradle, only to erupt into an aggressive surge of drums and battle cries that would force Jared Leto into hibernation. What starts as a paced, composed synth-pop gem transforms into a Colosseum-rock anthem. Murphy shouts: “A knot tied tight sweat leave sleep take me now”, emphasising each word – it is a barrier-crushing call.
This is a very different Foxing to that of three years ago. Consequently ‘Nearer My God’ is suitably risky, both sonically and thematically. ‘Gameshark’ is if Klaxons recorded ‘Hail To The Thief’, or rather if Portugal. The Man were kicked in the groin. Murphy’s disorientating falsetto is placed upon a skittish drum beat. Staccato piano chords ramp up the glass-shattering theatrics. Split into three movements, it is a kinetic math-rock How-To. Trying to resist the energy is pointless; “It’s like a seatbelt against a hurricane”, Murphy resigns early on.
Conor Murphy’s voice is a clear motivator as to why Chris Walla is at the helm. The former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist produces ‘Nearer My God’ – his second production credit of 2018 (see: Lo Moon). Not too dissimilar to Death Cab’s frontman Ben Gibbard, Conor Murphy’s falsetto has largely different intentions to his usual tone.
‘Five Cups’ finds itself as the album centrepiece – a nine-minute subdued emotional time-out. On the chorus, a piano dominates the arrangement. Laced with it is Murphy claiming “I want to drive with my eyes closed”. The first chorus is falsetto and wishful, he has a dream of escapism where he can forget the world with the freedom of driving without consequence – a feeling most Americans would relate to at this point. Come the second chorus, he finds himself screeching the mantra. His falsetto is shoved out the way by the cry. His wish is now a demand.
Walla has understood the personality of Gibbard’s voice for years. Now he has left Death Cab, his knowledge has helped capture the intentions of Foxing.
However audacious it is, Foxing’s incorporation of unconventional instrumentation is thrilling. ‘Bastardizer’ is already a stand-out (“You think I must not remember but I do”), but the outro is moulded by bagpipes, an instrument that builds as the song builds. Elsewhere the gorgeous ballad ‘Trapped in Dillard’s’ incorporates a synth lead early MGMT would swoon over. A guitar solo concludes ‘Lich Prince’, wrapping up a song that is as restless as it is tender.
There is a lot of noise in ‘Nearer My God’. It is a busy album, beefed with unpredictable sharp turns and fantastic vocal work. However the most prominent and hard-hitting moments occur when the songwriting taps into sentimentality. The title-track is a tour-de-force of emotional rock. Through cries of, “I want it all”, and “Do you want me at all?”, it explores the perennial lengths artists travel to garner success and whether it is worth it. The idea to release this single in five languages can not be understated.
On the other hand, ‘Slapstick’ is a highlight. It is able to build, retract then surge forward at unstoppable pace while remaining devastatingly sad. At a glance, this is a perfect listen. By the third verse, the song has exploded into a head-first dive into the abyss. However the song is unequivocally political; lyrics like, “Holed up in a tower, sucking inheritance”, “So you mock up an ad, gag a press pit” and the final blow of “I walk around with a headglow, Spoiled and ancient, Taking vacations” leave little to the imagine as to who they’re alluding to.
Foxing do not need to be political or religious (“She’s saying she believes in god again”, ‘Trapped in Dillard’s’), but this album is their opportunity to show what they have got. This is an all-out rock album. For the first time in years, this is proof that rock is very much alive, it just needed some ambition. Foxing do not hold back, this is a risky record that discards everything they have worked on before. This will challenge their core fans, let alone any casual listeners. However the songwriting and execution is unparalleled – it works because they wanted it to. “You try to turn it off, but you’re too turned on by it”, Murphy explains on ‘Gameshark’. Resistance is futile.
‘Nearer My God’ is out now via Triple Crown Records