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Foxing - Nearer My God Music Album Reviews

The St. Louis band’s third album is big, beautiful, and audacious, an artful leap toward creating the new sound of rafter-shaking indie rock.

Throughout history, “Nearer My God to Thee” have become infamous last words. The traditional Christian hymn retells Jacob’s dream of a ladder reaching all the way to heaven, but it’s gotten a reputation for inserting itself into parables of tragic ambition. The Battle of Gettysburg culminated with a disastrous infantry assault by the Confederacy, and its band played the hymn as surviving troops retreated from Pickett's Charge. It's disputed whether the band on the Titanic actually did the same while the ship sank nearly 50 years later, but that’s how the movie tells it. It is also the soundtrack for the “Doomsday Video,” created by Ted Turner so CNN can be the last thing people watch before the world ends.

Foxing knew exactly what they were getting into by interpolating “Nearer My God to Thee” as the title of their third album, which was already tempting fate—there are few things that indie rock artists are less willing to publicly admit than the desire to make a classic album, but this is exactly the challenge producer Chris Walla placed before them and the one they go to every possible length to meet.

The band’s previous albums, The Albatross and Dealer, were bookended by muted introductions and finales, hand-crafted keepsakes meant to be dog-eared and footnoted. Nearer My God is likewise a closed system bound with melodic and lyrical leitmotifs, but designed more like a multimedia extravaganza. About two minutes into the opener “Grand Paradise,” Murphy is “shock-collared at the gates of heaven” when the drums finally come in and it’s a legit drop for light shows they’ll never afford at festivals that have never considered booking them. Nearly an hour later, he cries, “Heaven won’t take me in” on the closing “Lambert,” a “Mr. November”-style victory lap where Murphy could walk into the crowd to be mobbed during the final surge. In between, “Five Cups” anchors Nearer My God with a nine-minute montage for Murphy’s dead friends. They brought in a guy to play bagpipes. There are songs that swap out bass guitars for Volca sequencers, immaculately recorded drums for 8-bit synth triggers, guitars for string samples and Murphy’s clean vocals for mutated and pitch-shifted versions of itself.

There are the aspects to Foxing’s third record that are objectively ambitious. But ambition alone isn’t transformative. It works best in tandem with audacity, something that chafes against the preordained dominance that accompanies the reception of albums from our most celebrated pop artists. Whatever the case, Nearer My God provides the incapacitating rush of watching a broken play develop into a Hail Mary, a half-court buzzer beater, a double steal that actually works—the thrill of its success amplified by palpable risk and an alternate, disastrous outcome that was narrowly avoided.

“Five Cups” could’ve stood accused of being nine minutes just so Foxing can say they did it, spending nearly half its length with Murphy paying intoxicated tribute to lost souls, drifting through backmasked bass, detuned vocals, and aqueous reverb. But Foxing’s free-form ambience is just as well-crafted as a chorus—brass occasionally blares through the mist like a foghorn until a final, regal swell announces its arrival on the mainland. It’s immediately followed by “Heartbeats,” where the friction between their typically knotty, math-rock rhythms and a delirious, disco-diva chorus completely unrecognizable as the work of Foxing creates suspense appropriate for a song where a life literally hangs in the balance. “Gameshark” is intentionally a splatter of organized noise, edging dangerously close enough to KROQ-core just to become its evil clone—something like Hail to the Thief played at 45 RPM or “Feel it Still” in a hall of broken mirrors. It’s also the first time Foxing’s crackling live energy is duplicated on tape.

The daredevil approach of Nearer My God is a rare one that I also got from the Hotelier’s Goodness and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die’s Harmlessness, albums that likewise came at a similar career points. Perhaps it’s easier for these bands to internalize the condescension often heaped upon their scene and use it as rocket fuel to cross the lacunal distance between themselves and mainstream recognition. Whatever the case, at a moment when even the most promising indie rock bands are shuffling familiar tropes from the ’90s and long-canonized influences, bands like Foxing that derive inspiration from emo, the electronic leaders of early 2000s indie, and alt-pop are adding new cards to the deck by default.

An extension of Murphy’s drugged and bugged-out solo album as Smidley, the electronic production on “Slapstick” is tinted by both codeine highs and cocaine hangovers. Murphy’s vocals conflate emo hysteria and R&B ecstasy on “Won’t Drown,” set to pummeling rhythms that reimagine MewithoutYou and Sung Tongs nonchalantly coexisting on CD racks in 2004. Foxing had already been the most sonically curious band to emerge from the dad-hats-and-capos wave of ’10s emo—both The Albatross and Dealer touched on free-form R&B, contemporary classical, post-rock, and ambient. But they were just that: touches that never felt like a full embrace. The stylistic density of Nearer My God produces its own gravitational pull that slams incompatible parts into intriguing new forms: There’s swirling death-disco that takes Murphy to the edge of a bridge, soaring Bowie-esque anthems about coked-out sexting, a sultry, bass-heavy lurch inspired by playing D&D on ecstasy, and an impossibly sad, glitch-pop ballad scented by “celebrity colognes” called “Trapped in Dillard’s.”

It’s an album of complicated, often elusive views on the illusion of control, an apocalypse that always feels impending but never arrives. But the best evidence of Foxing’s boldness is the thing that makes Nearer My God their most accessible work, their ability to distill the emotional core of each song into an instantly memorable tagline that can draw in new listeners not already predisposed to this brand of emotional brinksmanship: “You think I must not remember/but I do,” “You are not in love/so stop playing along,” “I just want a real love for you,” “I want to drive with my eyes closed,” “Is there anyone who wants me at all?”

The latter comes from the title track, where Murphy confesses that he’d sell his soul to be “America’s pool boy,” opting out of the financially and emotionally demoralizing gig life of indie rock to be rich, dumb, beautiful, and told what to do. But “Nearer My God” doesn’t come off like an endorsement or even a celebration of these desires. It’s more of a commiseration over their enduring appeal in our shittiest moments—“all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas”—for this year’s struggling creatives. It just so happens to be framed in a fearlessly ascendant synth-rock song that could be used over Super Bowl highlights if it caught the right set of ears.

The band admitted that “Nearer My God” was originally headed to the scrap heap for being too streamlined, too rock until Walla intervened on its behalf. He has a good track record of knowing when modesty no longer is serving a band. It's an extremely immodest song that serves as the emotional core of an extremely immodest album: “I want it all,” Murphy wails on its truest lyric, one that struck so close to home, they nearly left it off the album. This mindset alone sets Nearer My God apart from nearly anything else in its sphere. Plenty of artists put their every fiber of being into a record, but there’s rarely the overt drive to exceed one’s greatness that’s so insistent, it threatens to earn indie rock's most unintentionally revealing slight: try-hard. For most bands, it's an epithet. On Nearer My God, Foxing flaunt it like an Olympic gold medal.

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