Foxygen’s “America” or: How I Learned to Accept Bowie’s Death and Keep Loving Indie Rock

Foxygen © 2016

A few days ago, Foxygen teased… something.

The thirty-five second video came as a surprise to those of us who remembered the band’s “Farewell” tour back in 2015 and who, based on the rumors of intense partying and even more intense musical disagreements between bandleaders Jonathan Rado and Sam France, assumed that the project had run its course (much too soon).

Fans eagerly tried to extrapolate info from the short clip. Were they back? Was there a new album in the works? Was this is a one-off or B-side from earlier in their career?

Foxygen © 2016

Foxygen © 2016

The sharp production and lush orchestral arrangement suggested that it was indeed a snippet of a new release from the prodigal indie-psych group, and the marked difference between it and the sound of their older work is reason to be excited. And now it’s confirmed that this is a new track entitled “America.”

Watch: “America” – Foxygen


Subject-wise, however, the video was and is a little more divisive (at least in the circles this writer frequents.) So much so that it colors the perception of the new track.

Not that much happens in the video per say, but the imagery – or rather one image in particular – is incredibly loaded. Sam France walks the streets and ecstatically enters a concert; that’s it. But crucially, he does so while aping Thin-White-Duke-era David Bowie. He does it well, for sure, but that’s not really the point.

David Bowie mugshot

David Bowie mugshot

France’s “tribute” leaves a sour taste in the mouths of certain music fans who feel that the band is ultimately – beyond any legitimate tribute the members want to pay to the fallen music icon – leveraging Bowie’s death and his powerful iconography to promote their new music. Which is shitty – if it’s true.

But obviously that assertion requires some unpacking, which itself requires contextualization of the kind of band Foxygen is.

Foxygen

Foxygen

Sure, they broadly fall under the banners of “psychedelic rock,” and “indie rock,” but their appeal has always been rooted in the fact that they make music that straddles the impossible line between wild invention and “record-collector rock.”

That line obviously shouldn’t exist, for reason pertaining to…ya’know…logic and whatnot, but Foxygen’s albums Take the Kids Off Broadway and We are 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic will it into being.

They’re masters of songs that in one moment seem like pure classic rock pastiche and in the next seem to use rock’s back pages as a palette from which they mix and match entirely new hues.

Watch: “No Destruction” – Foxygen


That said, they have some familiar points of reference to which they often return, and singing-wise, France’s vocals often fall between two very distinct poles: Lou Reed and Mick Jagger. The tonal similarities are there, but France plays up the comparison with his intonations and phrasing. And this is important.

To bring it back to the Bowie issue, those two names – Reed and Jagger – mean a lot, mostly because they’re two of Bowie’s ownmost heroes and two people with whom he leveraged his own fame to get to know and work.

Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, David Bowie

Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, David Bowie

Foxygen and David Bowie share these lanes of influence, and they also share a “trend-sniffing-magpie”-like talent for mixing matching styles and creating something new. Foxygen rarely if ever sound quite like Bowie, but he clearly innovated the obtusely referential style which they’ve adopted and made their own – and they clearly know that.

It’s interesting to consider the band’s comeback in light of David Bowie’s death as a sort of existentially weighted “Recognition and Reversal,” in a sort of Greek-tragic sense. In 2015, lots of music fans had never honestly considered the fact that Bowie might one day die, and lots of music fans assumed that Foxygen was over. Yet, here we are.

This writer is inclined to believe it’s no coincidence that David Bowie dies and Foxygen pops back up wearing their admiration for him on their sleeve. It seems inevitable that in the existential consideration of what Foxygen is and whether it should continue, the recognition that the band occupies the same alien lane as Bowie, a lane now down one driver, Rado and France might find all the more reason to pursue their project.

Watch: “Waiting for the Man” (live) – David Bowie


Because what they’re doing is increasingly rare…at least with the sets of heroes and influences they and Bowie hold/held dearest. One only has to consider Foxygen’s criminally underrated record …And Star Power. It’s a big, excessive, confounding, infuriating rock record in the way very few are today. It’s the Exile on Main Street for those who (like Bowie always did) still love Syd Barrett and Todd Rundgren and all of rock’s weirdos and think A Most Lamentable Tragedy was too sincere for its own good (it’s not, but that’s for a different discussion.)

Watch: “Freedom II” – Foxygen


Bowie had more than his fair share of indulgent, puzzling records and they’ve almost all come to be held up as classics. We have to regard Foxygen with the same suspicion that they may up to something we don’t necessarily get, and frankly, that in the same way the less-immediately-great Pink Floyd records still persist (with the enthusiastic support of harmless-but-dedicated recreational drug users all across this fine planet,) their weirdo record will only continue to gain traction, since very, very few people still try to make anything remotely like it.

They, like Bowie, love their record collection and want to make music that speaks to people who feel the same way (or, quite possibly, this writer is engaging in some stereotypical projection and interjection. Whatever.)

So to bring it back around, no, it’s not crass or self-serving that Foxygen pay tribute to Bowie in the “America” video… at least not more than Bowie himself was ever crass or self-serving in cribbing his influences and being self-aware about where he fell on the pop-music totem pole. Which is to say they are a bit, he was a bit, and it’s totally fine.

Foxygen recognize that unless Bowie was, they aren’t, and they wanna show it. Good on them.

Watch: “Cosmic Vibrations” – Foxygen


“So ‘Mr. Analytical Critic”” you say now, “You haven’t talked about the actual song. What’s the freaking deal? This isn’t about you working through your relationship to your record collection.” Fair enough.

“America” is an ornate, orchestral track featuring (surprise!) Lou Reed-y and Mick Jagger-ish vocal affectations and musically, it reaches for grandiose, cinematic heights toward which the band has rarely strived, but which preserve their characteristic sense of off-kilter and enticing rhythm and melody. It reads almost like pastiche but with a sincerity and an urgency that sell it 150%.

And sources confirm that the entire new album consists of some “Walt Disney Fantasia Shit.”

So… get fucking hyped.

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"America" - Foxygen

“America” – Foxygen

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cover photo: Foxygen © 2016

Ross is a New York City-area writer with interests in American literature, critical theory, and, of course, pop music - specifically rock'n'roll and hip-hop. In addition to Atwood, his writing has appeared in the Notre Dame Observer and Time Out New York.