This article was originally published to The Edge on 10th February 2016
The conversations that surround debut albums are about artists standing out from the crowd. We ask what it is about them that is weird, accessible, or interesting. We hope the interesting find success without becoming so popular as to lose what made them stand out. So, when the conversations turn to sophomore albums, we turn and ask “what’s new?” Because if someone doesn’t sound significantly, never mind subtly, different to their previous work (and more importantly to everyone else), is there even any point? Here’s the rub. For evaluative purposes these conversations are useful. Are they the most interesting? Not really.
I say all this because to the ears it doesn’t sound like Foxes has changed much, in between All I Need andGlorious. It’s as well-produced, with synths and simple percussion driving the songs, as in the excellent ‘Body Talk’ and the cool crooner ‘Cruel’, where vocal samples make up as much, if not more of the melody than any synths. Maybe the biggest change is a strategic reduction in the number of tracks, a similar tactic to what CHVRCHES did on Every Open Eye, yet the anthemic ‘Amazing’ would challenge this idea.
Am I being hypocritical for speaking out against simply asking “what’s new”, and then criticising Foxes for not changing much? Maybe – I didn’t say the conversation was completely without value, or even necessarily boring. But what’s interesting about Foxes’ album is its emotional focus, and how well that resonates with its wonderfully pop sound.
Glorious is about many things, primarily youth – its joys and pains – in broad, easily accessible strokes. The titular number, but also ‘Let Go For Tonight’ and (unsurprisingly) ‘Youth’ show this. Here, songs like ‘Body Talk’, that have one level of universal feeling – that we can feel better and make progress by doing what’s physically instinctive, often dancing – take on deeper, more personal significance in the context of the other songs. Foxes’ uses the whole record to chart the ups, downs, and complexities in-between of a toxic relationship: the realisation it could be better; the push-and-pull difficulties of trying to end it, and the slow, hard road to happiness afterwards. The final track on the album, ‘On My Way’, ends things on a mournful yet hopeful note, and is significantly less triumphant a finish than the deluxe’s endnote ‘Rise Up – Reprisal’. Why would Foxes not include it on the standard release as the finale, when it would mirror the opening track ‘Rise Up – Intro’ so neatly? Without it, the album’s narrative is darker, less certain. While it always feels so relentlessly poppy, with songs that deal in certainties and specifics, the complexities and ambiguities only becoming clear in the big picture, that ending is ballsy.
There are flaws. While the music is often captivating, Foxes’ lyrics are not. There’s nothing that matches the little bits of invention and rhyme in ‘Body Talk’, which is as perfect a pop song as we’ll see all year. Yes, she’s honest and emotional, but she’s also quite literal and repetitive, leaving no room for playful wordplay or less obvious metaphors – see Halsey and Ryn Weaver, for whom these are bread and butter. For instance, the ballad ‘Scar’ – whose sound takes a surprising sidestep in style, using strings and piano instead of synths – one of the shortest songs, is almost boring because of the lyrics. It becomes a rigorously directed and handheld walk through an open plan park, instead of a mysterious, elegant wander through a forest. This is a real shame, as her words frequently slip past one’s perception, and so too do their meaning. The music is what remains. Framing her entire album around an abusive, toxic relationship is great for the conversation. Yet for her valiant goals, Foxes’ music hides these ideas, accidentally or not, in relatively unadventurous songs.
So, is All I Need good? Yes actually. It’s a really fun, very satisfying pop record, with enough variety in rhythms and sounds to not blur together. But that’s not really interesting. What the album’s clearly about, and whether Foxes manages to make that meaning apparent and resonant is. This is a conversation we should have, about intent and execution in art.
All I Need is out now via Sign Of The Times Records