Albums like Dealer and the Albatross brought Foxing critical acclaim among those who follow the modern wave of math-rock/post-punk infused emo, but not a wider audience. Specifically, not the kind of audience that makes for a livable income. So they decided that if they were going to be broke, they should literally go for broke.
The group recruited erstwhile Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla and Hop Along polisher Joe Reinhart for Nearer My God, their new record, and one that unapologetically aims to be a sprawling masterpiece, filled front-to-back with studio antics and vast soundscapes.
Not that Foxing lack for choruses on this record. “Bastardizer” mirrors the sparse storytelling of of The Antlers’ “Two” but with a taunting, sarcastic melody instead of lo-fi earnestness: “Here lies the magician / Survived by applause but still can't listen / The Bastardizer / The patron saint/Of disconnection / Of feel-no-shame.” “Grand Paradise” boasts hysterical gang vocals and some perfectly deployed screaming towards the end, accentuating the pure angst of the chorus. Then there’s “Heartbeats,” which Murphy called the best song Foxing has ever written. It’s an understandable claim; “you are not in love / so stop playing alooong” is certainly the best chorus on the record, drummer Jon Hellwig propelling them away from the slower songs (like “Rory”) that initially broke the band through.
That cognitive dissonance between critical acclaim and the money in their bank accounts is something they’ve touched on in their Nearer My Pod podcast, where they admitted that at a certain point, it stopped being fun to play music. As a result, the otherwise radio-friendly title track concerns the fantasy of selling out and living the ‘70s version of a rock star life, not the struggling late-2010s version. It’s no coincidence that the first ten seconds of “Nearer My God” (“Iiii waaantt it allll”) could easily slot on an Imagine Dragons album; the Dragons actually did sell out, evolving from earnest pop-rock to major-label jock jam mayhem.
Lost in the flurry of discussion about the new sonic direction are the lyrics, which are as much the proverbial leap forward as anything else. Aside from “Heartbeats’” instantly memorable chorus, the first verse muses on suicide and the motives beyond just ending a life: “They said ‘come on and get off the bridge / and we can take the camera down’ / when all you really want / is somewhere between here and the ground.” Between the bridge and the ground is also the exact moment where someone would begin to regret their attempt - the exact moment it’s often too late. With this in mind, “Heartbeats” becomes a plea for this person to get better: "Pull that rat heart out of your chest / It doesn't mean anything to us now.” On top of this heaviness, the first few lines compare our beleaguered protagonist to a font (yes, a font), and it works.
The band doesn’t have an overtly political track here, but the closest they get is the thrilling “Gameshark,” which resembles Everything Everything with their silliness swapped out for even more intensity: “It's in the twelve steps / Against a death threat / It's like a seat belt / Against a hurricane.” It’s a haywire, manic number (are those chopped vocal samples? Is that a piano glissando?) about coping with the unthinkable is appropriate for this political era. On the other more personal side is the chilling, falsetto-driven nine-minute “Five Cups,” whose refrain contains some stunning, ironically economical writing; the refrain here is “I want to drive with my eyes closed.” Even as the song overstays its welcome by the second ambient interlude, the lyrics remain compelling, as our narrator hallucinates old friends and haunts them in turn: “I’ll crackle like a radio from the gates / Won’t seem to find a reason not to leave.”
There are no bad songs on the record, just ones in which fewer ideas work. The closest thing to an outright dud is "Lich Prince," with a disappointingly clunky chorus: “I just want real love for you / for you I feel like a houseplant.” Even musically, it’s underwhelming: classic rock revival interrupting emo’s inherent immediacy. “Trapped In Dillard’s” is similarly overwrought. Meanwhile, the percussive “Won’t Drown” would be a highlight on pretty much any other record, but the song suffers from its placement as the penultimate track.
In fact, the album is so overwhelming that the first single “Slapstick” feels grounded in comparison. There are R&B flourishes and horns, sure, but compared to moments like the bagpipes on “Bastardizer” and the Rachmaninoff sample on “Heartbeats,” it’s slightly more conventional. Yet Nearer My God’s weirdness sometimes borders on deliberate self-sabotage - it’s enough to want a full-album remix without the abrasive moments for Radio 6 (even Radio 1) glory. Yet even as Conor Murphy would sell his soul for any glory, they’re clearly much more satisfied finding ways to make the ideas they throw at the wall stick. Once they focus in on their best ideas, a masterpiece is all but inevitable.