As I sat on my bed listening to Foxygen’s sophomore effort, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck perk up. “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic” is the name of the record. On the front cover, a sketchy rendition of the third eye shot rays of campy wisdom straight to my heart. That’s when it hit me. Just by approaching this album from a critical perspective, I had already set my foot in a big, figurative pile of ***. You’ll hear this album called “derivative”. Different people will say it different ways. Some might laud its “myriad of influences”, while others might label it “uninspired knock-off trash”. Here’s the clever part (I’d feel sick if I said “genius”): no matter what, Foxygen win.
More on that later. Let’s talk content.
Though they share fatal flaws, this record is certainly not the same as its predecessor, 2011's “Take the Kids Off Broadway.” Granted, it’s only about 20 seconds longer, maintaining the sort of short attention-span operation that plagues many of their peers. That being said, the song structures are significantly less manic. Only “On Blue Mountain” maintains that jarring, broken-spoke jumpiness that made the first album a bit interesting. In fact, the whole thing seems more commercially packaged. The production is more pronounced, but that doesn’t mean better. It shifts from track to track to track, much like the vocals, showing a proficiency in establishing the desired mood but a lack of inspiration and direction. There’s nothing here like the soft horns that filled “Broadway” which, at best interesting and at worst unobtrusive, added a bit of unity to the whole product.
The guys are clearly fixated with “getting” the period of rock & roll history they’re addressing (approx. 1967-1977, emphasis on the first year). Unfortunately, understanding and recreating what were authentic movements is no paint-by-numbers ordeal. The Love-esque shining-bells melody of “San Francisco” plays like a B-grade lullaby without Arthur Lee’s genius. “Oh Yeah” attempts to remake the simple pulp beauty of T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan’s lyricisms, but there’s no magic. “These arms and legs/bacon and eggs” stands no chance when put up against Bolan gems like “Under the bebop moon/I’m howlin’ like a loon”. Even on the most cathartic moments of “No Destruction”, where the vocals descend into strained Dylan-rips that would, at face value, fit in perfectly somewhere on “Blonde on Blonde,” there’s no pain… almost no feeling conveyed through the grooves.
This is the part where Foxygen laugh at me. They are, after all, the 21st century ambassadors of peace and magic. They’re not taking any of this seriously, so why am I? All across the record, they drop hints. Hell, they basically slap you in the face. “We know this is rehash. We know it’s nothing new. What are you going to scold us?” Yes. But maybe not the way you think. I get the irony. Ha ha. The way they go from inflections of their idols to borderline copyright infringement. It’s all very nice. It’s incredibly safe. They’re untouchable. Criticism can be written off to a lack of getting it, basically. And praise? Well, what major rock publication would want to be accused of not “getting it”?
I don’t hate Foxygen. Generational trends like these, clinging to irony to shelter yourself from criticism, from innovation, and, ultimately, from thinking at all, that’s what I hate. I’m a victim and a culprit as much as they, but I won’t go around pretending to praise it or be duped by it. We have to get over our terrified aversion to honesty so that we can once again reach a point when it isn’t ridiculous to imagine a contemporary artist writing something as poignant and stark as Dylan’s “I Want You” without snickering; When a potentially touching song like “Shuggie” doesn’t have to be saddled with some ridiculous camp-garage-B-film-funk breakdown to remind us that Foxygen’s just jokin’ around. We have to stop planning our every move based on planting safeguards to prevent people from saying to us, in the simple English that’s become so unfashionable, “you’re wrong.”