Nearer My God is 2018’s bravest record.
In an age of hyperbole, achieving “perfection” requires a band to take significant risk. It can’t happen because you stayed the course, you must advance your craft to reach it. OK Computer did both of these things, as did Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, two records from the last 20-plus years that take their bands’ formulas, blow them up, and make something totally fresh from the stuff that stuck around.
You read the score at the top correctly. It’s not hyperbole. Nearer My God, the third LP by St. Louis indie rock band Foxing, is a perfect album. It does what the albums mentioned above did: shredding the band’s core aesthetic—twinkly, melancholy chamber emo—and incorporating the largest pieces of shrapnel to make up the band’s new form. To describe exactly what this new form looks like is difficult, as each song on the album builds its own small ecosystem with its own internal logic, with varying degrees of resemblance to the band’s first two releases, 2013’s The Albatross and 2015’s Dealer—both excellent records in their own ways. Nearer My God is what happens when a band goes for broke and tries something entirely new. And against all odds, every experiment serves the album’s greater good and not only succeeds but elevates the form. It goes beyond genre, marrying post-rock with dance beats and twinkling guitars, arena-ready synths and gurgling basslines—and it all works, even though it shouldn’t.
The seismic shift within the band is immediately obvious. Opener “Grand Paradise”—a song that saunters out of the gate with a seductive synth line and a hand-clap beat, both undercut with a dramatic piano flourish—sets the stage perfectly, but it feels like it’s holding back. Then comes frontman Conor Murphy’s falsetto: “I can be romantic when I’m starving for sleep.” Combined with the song’s sound, his voice gives a TV on the Radio vibe—and then, Murphy sings the line “Shock collared at the gates of heaven,” and the drums come in, and it feels like a curtain-drop moment where we get to see what the band was holding back . “Grand Paradise” feels like it wants to be an arena rock dance hit, and while most bands in their class could be shunned for embracing that style, Foxing makes it look like an art form.
Comparatively subdued is “Slapstick,” the lead single and one of the closest songs to the color palette of Dealer. This song feels like it was meant to lull you into a false sense of security, failing to really encapsulate the weirdness in store. Even still, “Slapstick” bursts with life, another arena-ready belter that blends beautifully into a wandering, post-rock outro. “Slapstick,” as well as the equally dense “Lich Prince,” packed with skittering drum beats and far-away vocals, represent the pieces of Foxing that remain from how the band sounded before—emo vocals, post-rock textures. These songs, however, do everything they can to innovate even here, and their complicated, constantly shifting landscapes keep you on your toes even as they rest on old tricks.
The walls begin to bend with “Gameshark.” Far-flung from every note the band has produced so far, “Gameshark” is a loud, dense, nearly rapturous blowout song, intent on trashing whatever shreds of normalcy you’d held onto for the three previous tracks. Murphy’s falsetto rarely lets up here, a mask for incredible wordsmithing: “It’s in the twelve steps/ Against a death threat/ It’s like a seat belt/ Against a hurricane/ You’re in the first class/ Against a tailspin/ With the dizygotic twin of god in the cockpit,” he sings amid chugging guitar squalls, as the chorus erupts. Moments of “Gameshark” are reminiscent of the chaos baked into Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” at once immaculately ordered and bursting at the seams. Likely to be one of the most divisive tracks on the album, it’s also the most purely infectious, thanks to its willingness to be the mascot for the band’s go-for-broke experimentation here.
Even when the album’s experiments should fail, they deftly avert crisis. Take “Five Cups,” the album’s nine-minute centerpiece: elongated by a meandering, atmospheric interlude near the four-minute mark, Murphy’s bleak story about hallucinating his dead friends should drag the album to a screeching halt, but in the capable hands of Foxing, “Five Cups” becomes not just indispensable but is one of the strongest lyrical performances of the album. Murphy’s crisis of self comes to a head, and even though you don’t know who he’s singing about, it stings just the same when he namechecks Dan or Samantha, or sings “I won’t wait to be saved/ I feel off and pray to be/ Between Florence and Coleen.” Even that long, meditative interlude helps the album’s pace, giving us a moment to breathe and process everything they’ve thrown at us so far—before, of course, throwing us into the dancefloor ready noise-pop of “Heartbeats,” furthering the band’s goal to keep you on your toes at all times.
What elevates Nearer My God past being merely “very good” is the internal battle built into the album’s fabric. Throughout, Murphy explores the struggle between not believing in God, but still being terrified of him: “I’m shock-collared at the gates of heaven/ 25 years that I’ve been trying to shake loose/ And if I try to sit still/ Then someone’s breathing down my neck.” This feeling is summed up beautifully early on, courtesy of “Lich Prince”: “I’ve been shortchanged with the Lord for too long.” On the gorgeous and glitchy “Trapped in Dillard’s,” he uses his strained, subtle twang to sing about being “trapped here in the mall for too long/ Between an exit and a pregnant ex-love/ She’s saying she believes in God again/ And it feels nice to think/ That someone’s watching from above/ But it won’t work like that/ Cause nothing works like that.” Later, Pascal’s Wager is name checked in “Crown Candy,” as Murphy argues with the people at a parish picnic: “But he’s starving for your compliments”/ And I’m placing my bets on you/ You’re in Pascal’s hell and you’re still happy/ Wasting my life on you.”
What sets this crisis of faith apart from other albums pulling the same trick is that Murphy acknowledges the ways a lack of belief can lead to isolation. That the album’s curtain drops at “Shock-collared at the gates of Heaven” is no accident, and the imagery returns at the album’s finale, “Lambert,” when he comes to terms with this disconnect with airport imagery: “You’re a soul unhitched from flesh/ You’re the invisible fence/ And if I make it through customs/ Then I’m two steps out of the wrong.” A few moments later, he sums it up more succinctly: “I spent so long at the gates/ And I threw up so many times on the way/ Heaven won’t take me in.” “Lambert,” here, also serves as a perfect finale to such an unexpected album. It spends most of its length giving us a wash of gentle sound and vocals reminiscent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot closer “Reservations”—which it maintains for half its length, before bursting into life, another resplendent wave of color and light.
Much has been made about the audacity of naming your album Nearer My God, evoking not only an ascent to heaven, but the bitter end that leads to it. It’s hard not to think about the phrase “tempting fate,” but for Foxing, the image of a band playing on, even as the ship sinks, is exactly what the album is about. It’s about throwing yourself into something, knowing you could drown in the process, but being brave enough to take the risk in the first place. At the album’s climax, the aptly titled “Won’t Drown,” Murphy’s refrain gives us a guiding mantra: “Bravery won’t drown/ So you keep the water coming.” Nearer My God is 2018’s bravest record, and despite the sonic risks taken, Foxing have emerged with the best reward possible: an actual, honest-to-God classic.