It is a cliché that great turmoil creates great art. Some of the finest albums in history — everything from Blood on the Tracks to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Exile in Guyville — were written during moments of extreme duress. It’s a cliché because it’s true.
Conor Murphy, frontman for the St. Louis indie-rock band Foxing, is hoping to break from that tradition, but based on his experience so far, calamity seems to be the unfortunate breeding ground for success. Following a disastrous series of events in 2016, the band regrouped to pour their energy into last year’s Nearer My God, a compendium of diverse sonic statements that represented their finest moment to date.
“We are the most cursed band in terms of just shitty things happening — we’ve had van accidents, trailer problems — events that just constantly put us in the worst situations,” says Murphy, whose band performs at August Hall on May 15 with Daddy Issues and Now, Now. “Because of those things, when we get into the studio, we are so unaccepting and unforgiving of mediocrity — like each song has to be worth what we’ve been through. I would hope to say that huge problems aren’t necessary to make good music, but it would be completely wrong to say that they didn’t contribute to us pushing ourselves to try and really make something important.”
Understandably, Nearer My God has an apocalyptic feel to it. Everything from the album title (a hymn that was allegedly played by the house band during the sinking of the Titanic) to the record cover (a quartet of equines that conjures up images of the Four Horsemen) emits the sense of impending doom. The tracks are claustrophobic and self-collapsing, starting off as skeletal creations that eventually become overwhelmed by a cacophony of noise and dissonance. Innocent beginnings end in chaos — each song is an exhilarating thrill ride, with the white-knuckle adventures accompanied by occasional pangs of terror.
The band’s chief lyricist, Murphy says he penned many of the songs while traveling the country on tour in 2016 and 2017, a time of considerable social unrest. The specter of a bigoted and repressive presidential administration loomed over all aspects of Foxing’s experiences, and instead of trying to shrink from those moments through escapism, Murphy and company confronted that pall in the most direct way they could imagine.
“When you’re having the worst day ever, and you’re extremely depressed, kind of the last thing you want to hear from someone is that everything is going to be OK,” Murphy says. “On this album, we went to the other extreme — everything is fucked, and we are completely doomed and there is no hope for us. And then it almost turns hopeful, because you listen to the album, and the world isn’t ending, so you think okay, ‘Maybe we will be all right.’ ”
While the album touches upon the universal angst felt by many people in the nation, Nearer My God is also deeply personal. The standout track, “Five Cups,” is a haunting nine-minute dirge where Murphy recounts the desperate moments of trying to communicate with the recently deceased. He name-checks several friends who have died, lamenting how these losses have left him with a void that cannot be replaced.
Murphy’s evocative lyrics and elastic vocals — which shift at times from the baritone of the National’s Matt Berninger to the caustic screams of Desaparecidos-era Conor Oberst — highlight the album, but Foxing are far from a one-man effort. Guitarist Eric Hudson helped produce the album (alongside Death Cab for Cutie vet Chris Walla), and each track reflects equal creative contributions from the band (guitarist Ricky Sampson and drummer John Hellwig round out the quartet).
“I feel like for every song, one person is really not into it, until they get their hands on the writing process and mold it into something they like,” Murphy says. “It makes each song, and the whole album, this really eclectic collection.”
That medley of voices has helped Foxing rise above classification — at times, various outlets have categorized the band as emo, indie, math-rock, punk, and art-rock, but none of those labels do the band justice. Songs such as the Bowie-meets-bagpipes anthem “Bastardizer” and the slow-burning ballad “Lambert,” reveal a band at the peak of its skills, unafraid to throw strange wrinkles into its sound or move off-script from expectations.
The 12 songs on Nearer My God are resoundingly unique, save for the palpable sense of urgency that underpins each track. That desperation emanates from a record borne out of dark times and from a band questioning its worth.
After the success of Nearer My God — the record landed laudable reviews from Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound, and the A.V. Club, among others — that sense of unease and self-doubt should be dissipating. The band is already writing a follow-up, although Murphy concedes that he’s perversely worried that things might be too good at the moment.
“I’m a little nervous that if this next year goes totally fine and without huge problems, we’re going to write a bad album,” Murphy says. “I’m really hoping that’s not the case. I think we’ve had enough crazy shit happen to us already. That should last for a couple more albums of material.”
Foxing with Now, Now and Daddy Issues, Wednesday, May 15, 8 p.m., at August Hall, 420 Mason St. $20; augusthallsf.com