Review: Foxing’s Nearer My God is better at being ambitious than meeting its aspirations

TRIPLE CROWN RECORDS - 2018

TRIPLE CROWN RECORDS - 2018

Nearer My God covers a lot of ground, bouncing between sonic resemblances to The Antlers, M83, Radiohead, and Brand New. Oh, and Frank Ocean. Deviating from their prior work, synths and drum machines are often in the forefront of Foxing’s latest album, elucidating the themes of paranoia and impending destruction better than more conventional instruments could. While fans of the band and genre may bemoan the shift, it givers listeners a taste of how emo influence can provide a refreshing take on indie/alt/pop rock.

The members of Foxing are smart dudes, and it shows in their lyrical and musical approach to their complex, heavy subject matter (the willingness to grapple with tougher material is part of the “refreshing take” I mention above). For an example of the type of themes we’re working with, check out their music video for “Slapstick,” written and directed by Foxing’s ex-bassist Josh Coll. The video tells the story of a man (singer Conor Murphy) feeding an alien plant with his blood, knowing the plant is his only friend, and potentially, his only hope for reforesting and surviving an apocalyptic wasteland. The video is worth a watch, buoyed by Murphy’s impressive performance.

In an interview with Uproxx, Murphy gave readers a glimpse into the band’s headspace while writing the album.

“Rather than writing about love and relationships on this record, we focused a lot more on anxiety and paranoia and control, and fear that the world is going to end.”

(The whole interview is insightful and can be read in full here). Foxing bestowed the album with the name Nearer My God, a.k.a the hymn allegedly played by the musicians aboard the Titanic while it sank and the song in CNN’s doomsday video. As such, a fittingly apocalyptic level of anxiety pervades many of the album’s tracks, as Murphy invokes sobering imagery like being “shock-collared at the gates of heaven,” swan diving into concrete, or wasting his “last gasp on this helpless rock” on “I love you.”

These terrifying, dystopian lyrics are paired with equally evocative musical arrangements. It’s clear that Foxing is pushing their comfort zone to expand the bounds of their songwriting arsenal. “Slapstick” features rhythmic, ethereal falsettos. On “Trapped in Dillard’s,” a glitched out instrument sounds like a children’s toy with dying batteries. “Gameshark” has a lot of sounds that are hard to identify, but make me feel like a yuppie on a bad trip trying to escape a rave.

Especially on the first half of the album, the band crafts grand, immersive soundscapes of biblical proportions. They serve as the ideal lens to survey Foxing’s twisted worldview through. The sense of dread evoked serves as the perfect backdrop for songs such as “Five Cups,” where the narrator overdoses on Klonopin because they “won’t wait to be saved.” On “Lich Prince,” Murphy cries out, “I just want real love for you,” knowing he’s a poor substitute for the real thing. His proclivity for “thinking of new ways / to fuck with old friends” shows he is the lich prince, an undead being enslaving the lesser. The song culminates in a frantic guitar solo, reminiscent of Brand New’s “You Won’t Know.” For those looking to fill a Devil and God sized hole left by Brand New’s plummet from grace, the front half of Nearer My God will fit nicely.

Unfortunately, the back half of the album can’t keep up with the breakneck pace. The tracks are less moody and lose their edge. Lyrically, “Heartbeats” advances the album’s core ideas, using the analogy of a suicidal man being filmed by a TV crew. Any concern they feel for him disappears as soon as he steps off the ledge and can’t boost their ratings any longer. Murphy addresses an ambiguous other with a similar charge in the chorus lines, “You are not in love / so stop playing along.” However, “Heartbeats” is the most radio-friendly song on the album. While not inherently a bad thing, it neuters the impact of the song by not allowing it to build to the emotional reckoning it deserves. I note the irony of the radio-friendly track touching on the exploitative nature of media, but Murphy seems too content to settle into the pop rock role rather than decrying the constraints (like the character in the song is).

While “Trapped in Dillard’s” and “Bastardizer” are songs I really enjoy, they don’t live up to expectations set by earlier tracks. While having an understated piece is a nice tendency breaker, stringing too many together turns into a slouch. This gives the impression of the album petering out rather than achieving equilibrium. 

On the whole, this album is a strong release with no “bad” tracks. It feels like a prestige work, and for a younger crowd, I could see this becoming a defining album for them. It’s exhilarating to see Foxing take their music in a creative, more uncertain direction. It’s a move that takes guts, and I think music lovers would be remiss to ridicule rather than reward them for trying. However, the results are a bit of a mixed bag, leaving this album feeling more successful at being ambitious than actually achieving its aspirations. The good news is that the ultimate goal was to become a masterpiece. So instead of being a perfect, top-10 album of all time, it’s only a very excellent top-10 album of this year.

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Top Tracks: Grand Paradise, Slapstick, Five Cups

For Fans Of: Art rock, the space where Brand New and Radiohead overlap, feeling an underlying sense of terror

Pros: Every track is interesting, strong thematic content, effective at creating a mood

Cons: Back half lets off the gas, the idea of a song occasionally overshadows its reality