There is no predicting Foxygen and, whilst I have not been following their work for long, look back at their catalogue and they are masterful when it comes to subverting expectation and the obvious! Their 2007 debut, Jurrassic Exxplosion Phillipic – stupid title: great album – contained thirty-six tracks (f*ck me!) of varying lengths and, to many, it was a bit of an explosion out of nowhere. There have been other albums with a similar breadth and ambition but few as strange and wonderful as Foxygen’s debut. From there, they brought us 2012’s Take the Kids Off Broadway. This album has six songs on it and, compare it with their debut, and you have two very different albums indeed! From there, we have almost had an odds-evens split: albums a bit more bananas and opera-like and those more conventional and balanced. 2017’s Hang falls into the latter camp and is fairly conventional – by Foxygen’s standards at the least! Maybe Foxygen are done with the operatic and all-sweeping but, on Seeing Other People, they have remained in the more grounded and tight(ish) territory. I was a bit late to reviewing this but, with a busy schedule, other journalists have got there before me. In a way, it has given me more of a chance to let the tracks absorb and settle – others have reacted to the first play and, maybe, have seen new things after a bit of time.
If you are strangers to Foxygen then, to brief you, they are the Los Angeles-based duo of Sam France and Jonathan Rado. Released on Jagjaguwar, their sixth studio album sort of continues from Hang but throws in new elements and stories. Their current album was written and produced by the duo at Sonora Recorders in California and mixed/engineered by Shawn Everett. Foxygen have expanded their classic rock/pop template and have cut up loads of sounds; put them into a spider’s web and come up with something fresh – that description/imagery is courtesy of the duo and not me! If one wants to compare Foxygen now with their other material then one could call Seeing Other People as a simple goodbye album – light-years away from their debut and a sign they are always moving and never keen on settling. The ‘goodbye’, as vocalist France has said, refers to is multi-dimensional: it pertains to touring and anxiety; a bad stage in life and to those people in his life hanging on like leeches. Because of the casting-off of demons and bad times, Foxygen explore the touring lifestyle and being young on their new album; a farewell to the guitar and darker elements, perhaps.
There are moments to enjoy and ponder on Foxygen’s new album. Seeing Other People opens in a typically impressive and curious fashion! ‘Work’ starts with zaps and hollow percussion; a mix of low-fi beats and something quite spacey. There is then a funky and clapping coda that brings the song into Prince territory and gives us a rousing fling. The vocals and lyrics talk about powdering the nose and being stuck at work. Our hero talks about “doing all the work” and confronts someone who has something on their mind – get it out and stop holding back! There are some female backing vocals (apologies as I do not know the name of the singer) and, as a minor quibble, the lead vocal does not seem high enough in the mix; there is a lack of clarity at some stages. Regardless, it is a fantastic opener full of life, busy beats and standout lines. There is a rawness underneath but, rather than rely on guitars, the grit and passion comes from the electronics and percussion. I have looked at other reviews for Seeing Other People and, as becomes apparent quickly, this outing seems more like a farewell and clash of personalities than a unified record with fun and harmony. That is no bad thing but, right from the off, there is a tension bubbling and lack of positivity that sort of sets the scene. ‘Mona’ lumbers in with heavy feet and is balanced with some woozy bass and fizzing beats. The combination of sounds is quite relaxing, oddly, but there is a sharp tongue waiting to come in. Our lead is leaving and has been waiting too long; he is weary and has been waiting to make the decision, it seems. If the composition has a sense of movement and desire, the hero is finally, after all this time, making decisions – even if the song is more about pondering and accusation as it is actual productivity and change.
Seeing Other People’s title track has a sort of Lou Reed-like tone to the vocal (or maybe that is just me?!) and it looks at different people being stuck. The relative relief and passion of the vocal seems less strict and negative as previous songs so, finally, there is a bit of ‘hope’ in the mix. The lyrics, mind, shift between people making you high and those who abandon you. It is very much the centrepiece of the album: a thinly-veiled poke at those who have troubled Foxygen and the balance that used to be there, maybe; a real sense that things in camp are not as rosy as they used to be. The entire album, compared to their previous work, is in the adult-contemporary mould and has a maturity – maybe the fact this is their ‘final album’ (you never know with bands!) means they are reigning things in. Whilst there are suggestions of Lou Reed and Fleetwood Mac in various moments, the opening half does not really have a clear standout. ‘Face the Facts’ sports some strings, blips and bop in the back but there is too much going on to make the song gel; switching as it does from 1980s-inspired sounds to something older…it is a bit all over the place! ‘Livin’ a Lie’ is a more pleasing and pleasurable song. It is quite earnest and open and, compared to some of the other tracks on Seeing Other People, it is a highlight. Even if Foxygen are not returning to their early days in terms of the number of tracks and ambition, there are touches of the past. They are sort of uniting the better days and (poorer) present in terms of themes and compositions and, for the most part, it is not that bad.
‘The Thing Is’ has the pomp and familiarity of a Hungry Heart-era Bruce Springsteen track and, for that reason, you root for the guys. There is definite energy and rouse in the song and, in terms of the lyrics, there is confidence and hope in places. With every song on the new record, there is an undertone of fear and deceptiveness. You do hear the loneliness and anger override the warped electronics and jingling piano. Our man cannot find the keys to the car of success – a smart line perhaps or a lumpen image?! – and you do get the sense that, in many ways, the end of the road is a chance to start afresh and learn from the past. ‘News’ continues the sense of rush we experienced in the previous track and, this time, there is a 1980s-synth sound that gives the song a weirdness and smile (that is much-needed). In fact, I would say this track is the standout. The vocals – a blend of male and female – are strong and gorgeous. There is some cool kick and lick whilst our hero channels his regret and anxiety into something quite potent and memorable. You are addicted to the soothing and cascading vocals and the general feeling of warmth – even if the lyrics hide something a bit darker. It is a track that could have come from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours as one gets impressions of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham fusing their voices together. Elements of Muse – there is a flavour of Matt Bellamy’s sound in places – and Supergrass present themselves but, whereas other cross-pollinating songs have failed, ‘News’ is a success. One wonders if this injection of quality and focus earlier on would have provided a different take on Seeing Other People…but at least it gives us some uplift near the end. ‘Flag at Half-Mast’ does plod a bit and there is not a lot to elevate it beyond the status of filler. That is a shame because it follows such a great track and is actually the predecessor of a half-decent swansong.
If ‘The Conclusion’ is the final track we hear from Foxygen then it is not a bad resignation letter. It starts with a chug that is part-spaced-out and part-rock-flavoured. Finding its feet and backed by wordless coos, I like the murkiness and moodiness of the song. It passes through stages and offers quite a lot of insight and closure (if such a thing truly exists). The need to be friends is the decision in front of Foxygen – and one feels this sentiment is more important than anything else. Maybe there was hope they’d continue but now, on this finale, the facts are clear: there is not really a way back for them. Heartache is evident but, rather than end the album in a rather morbid and dour fashion, there is plenty of sass, swagger and soul to round things off with. Catchy, heartaching and busy, ‘The Conclusion’ is a pretty nifty and bold song. It ranks in the top-three tracks from the album and, without much genius and standout from the opening half, it means the second half is more appealing and promising. It also means that, weirdly, you are sad the album ends because it only really starts to heat up and get interesting past the mid-way point.
Seeing Other People has flickers of Foxygen’s past glory and potential but, mired in a sense of separation, finality and fight, there is more tension and kiss-off than positivity and nuance. I have heard the album a few times and was keen to give it a great review and see the light. It is a classic three-star album: some great songs and definite highlights but too much weakness and filler to make it something I’d recommend everyone hear. Seeing Other People is not a ‘bad’ album but it is not near the standard they set early in their careers. With some epic moments to be found – ‘News’ and ‘The Conclusion’ at the peak – there is simply too much heavy-sulk and bitterness to make it remain in the heart. Foxygen can be proud of everything they have achieved and the albums they have put out but, clearly, there are questions whether this is the end for them. If it is, then it is a farewell of two halves. We have the somewhat damp and confused opening half with a more invigorating, promising and captivating second half. If you are just discovering Foxygen now then I would suggest you start from their debut and work your way down. If you are an existing fan then I am sure their ‘last album’ will provoke mixed reactions. Seeing Other People keeps alive their past sounds and core but, in many ways, steps into new realms. You can read Foxygen’s letter here. It talks about their “most recent last-ever album” – almost like The Rolling Stones embarking on a last-ever tour! – and decide for yourself if they are genuine. If they are then it will be sad for music but, as you can hear throughout Seeing Other People, it is an appropriate time to call things quit.
Seeing Other People was released on 26th April, 2019 through Jarjaguwar and is available to buy here.