Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
-from “Nearer, my God, to Thee” by Sarah Flower Adams
From the moment the electronic beat opens the first track on Foxing’s transcendent Nearer My God,it’s clear that this band is trying something new. “Grand Paradise” is a strange, almost haunted track that opens the record on an anxious, ominous tone, but maybe that’s exactly what makes it work. This album is all about establishing expectations and then, if not dashing them, twisting and subverting them. It’s an album about dealing with God the way one deals with the cracked mirror of the self. It’s an album that deals with uncertainties as the only certainties, that celebrates, even relishes, the vast emptiness between the human and the divine.
While beginning with falsetto vocals paired with a darkly dramatic piano hammering away on top of an electronic beat, “Grand Paradise” blossoms into a bridge (maybe it would be more appropriate to call it a “third act” as it unexpectedly and climatically blows the hinges off such a slow, quiet song) that is pleasantly reminiscent of some of the best heart-shattering gang vocal moments from Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me (2006). As an aside, it’s actually difficult for me to talk about Foxing without thinking about Brand New and, consequently, without continuing to process my feelings about Brand New following the allegations surfaced about Jesse Lacey. There are so many similarities not only in the vocal style of Foxing’s Conor Murphy, but also in his approach to imagery and confessional lyrical trends (with heady religious imagery to boot). That being said, it’s important to remember that while Foxing may have been influenced by former Triple Crown Records (where Foxing now reigns supreme in my book) darling Brand New, Foxing is a very different band.
Immediately following “Grand Paradise,” the album takes a major turn in the first single of the album, “Slapstick” (which is also one of my favorite music videos of 2018). While the reverby riff that floats throughout “Slapstick” certainly sounds like many of the most “90s emo-revival” moments of 2015’s Dealer, “Slapstick” announces itself almost immediately as a statement of Foxing’s musical growth in its use of keyboards and samples that add a surreal kind of backing percussion to an already sonically rich track. If there’s a wider stylistic gulf on this album than between “Gameshark” and “Nearer My God,” then I have yet to discover it. Where “Gameshark” again showcases the electronic beats that Conor Murphy experimented with on his excellent solo outing Smidley, “Nearer My God” is as close to an emo power ballad as Foxing has ever produced, a song with the kind of electric fist-pumping power that Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” would send scene kids into a frenzy with back in 2003. And that’s only halfway through the album. If the chorus on “Nearer My God” (“do you want me at all?”) send shivers down your spine, then the chorus to the heart-rending “Five Cups” will be your undoing (“I want to drive with my eyes closed”). From there the album opens up even more. Standout tracks like the gorgeous piano ballad “Trapped in Dillard’s,” the Morrissey-inspired “Crown Candy,” and the fiery ascension of classic sounding-Foxing “Won’t Drown” keep this album kinetic both musically and emotionally. 80’s-infused album closer “Lambert” brings the album to its smoky conclusion with a ghostly whisper, which is perhaps exactly what an album as expansive and elusive as Nearer My God needs.
This album is all about ambition— not the ambition that some bands have to make their sound palatable to a larger cross-section of listeners or become “radio ready,” but rather to raise the already impressive stakes of their music and lyrics. While issues of faith, the nature of sin, drug abuse, and loss of the beloved were some of the many prevalent themes on the two previous Foxing albums, Nearer My Godtakes human strife and elevates it to the divine. The title of the album itself treads multiple interpretations: a reference to a classic hymn, an acknowledgement of personal, spiritual growth, the approach of death where we finally become “closer” to our creator, the supposed last song the band played as the Titanic sank, etc. Therein lies the tremendous ambition of this record— the many faces of human suffering portrayed become more than a means of connecting to the listener, they become prayers for forgiveness, redemption, and guidance. There’s endless acknowledgement on this record of failure and regret, but what raises the stakes here is that the resignation present in previous albums has receded, or is at least balanced against other forces. There’s room now for hope. Maybe someone’s listening.