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John Foxx And The Maths
Howl Adam Lehrer , July 24th, 2020 08:25

John Foxx and the Maths find strength in pop on new album, Howl, finds Adam Lehrer

Despite its title, it doesn’t appear that ‘New York Times’, a song from the pioneering synthpop and art rock singer/producer John Foxx’s new album Howl, has anything to do with the global media’s primary arbiter of neoliberal hegemony. Instead, the track finds Foxx looking backwards, musing on New York, and the lost power of cities. According to an interview with Spill Magazine, Foxx’s lyrics on ‘New York Times’ recall the first time he got to New York in 1978, finding a city in financial ruins while an explosively creative avant-garde that had raged on from The Velvet Underground through the early days of punk rock was at the height of its importance. Invoking The Velvets’ ‘Sister Ray,’ Foxx laments the eradication of radical art cultures from our cities in the era of austerity that would follow.

Now the curtain’s drawn On sister ray They say One day She took her suitcase To the train

Foxx is at war with a sense of nostalgic mourning on Howl. The collapse of communities and creative camaraderie that has coincided with the rise of platform capitalism has instilled in him an artistic pining. The “New York indicated” within the lyrics of ‘New York Times’ could just as well be the London of The Fall, Leigh Bowery, and indeed Foxx’s early career as the founder of Ultravox as well. Cities were once the breeding grounds for modernism. Now, the Internet is the breeding ground for what little modernism there is left. Foxx seems to be remembering a time when art happened at the tip of the culture, a unifying force. Fox literally seems to be howling and pleading for an avant-garde to rise to the surface of the discourse.

Howl is an album of observations, personal or political,” writes Aaron Badgley. “Observations about and from the past to warnings of what may come.” Indeed, there’s a remarkable sense of urgency to this record, considering it’s already Foxx’s 6th album with his John Foxx and the Maths group that he formed in 2009 alongside English composer and record producer Benge. Rounding up the band is now longtime member and Irish synth-pop artist Hannah Peel and none other than Robin Simon, the guitar player responsible for riffs on what might still be Foxx’s most influential album, Ultravoxx’s Systems of Romance. Simon’s presence on the album perhaps explains its upbeat, electro-rockist sensibilities, diverting quite a bit from the haunted and unnerving synth experiments that composed the Maths’ previous album The Machine. “[Robin] has got the essence and instinct that always pulls me back from the brink,” says Foxx in the Spill Magazine interview. “A sort of controlled fury and lyricism, plus sheer writhing power, capable of transforming everything we do.”

There is a compelling aesthetic contradiction coursing through the veins of this record. Compositionally, this is as upbeat and hyper-addictive as anything that Foxx has ever made, The songs are full of bombast and splendor, with joyous washes of synths, stadium-sized dance beats, and Simon’s frenzied albeit rapturous tremolo guitar licks. But lyrically, Foxx signals caution about the future.

As a songwriter, Foxx has always exuded a talent for producing mesmeric, imagistic social critiques in the shape of pop songs, and his proven insight as a cultural analyst does imbue listeners of Howl with a vague angst about the future (Foxx has always had a preternatural gift for forecasting things to come, just look at this 2006 interview between Foxx and the theory fiction writer Simon Sellars in which Foxx claims that technology would lead to a “Napster for movies,” all but directly predicting the rise of Netflix and streaming).

Howl opening track ‘My Ghosts’ is indicative of the sensibility clashing throughout the record. While the music is propulsive — driven by fuzzed out pop punk riffs, Devo-esque ecstatic synths, and an uptempo rhythm — the lyrics are saturated with the angst of mortality and a life passed by. “My ghost, a cascade of all these abandoned things, all unknown to me, of course,” bellows Foxx in his seductive, post-punk inflected baritone.

Always one with a mischievous wit, ‘Tarzan and Jane Regained’ packages a tale of carnal lust and fetishism of the cultural “other” in the form of an occulted Tarzan tale; there’s even a reference to a “Mondo Kane” which will inevitably encourage associations with Mondo Cane, the 1962 Italian exploitation-documentary which trained its “anthropological” eye on cultural practices that would be scandalizing to a western gaze

There are some tracks, like ‘The Dance’, that wield an undercurrent of disorientation and an avant expressivity beneath an explosively catchy and anthemic melody. ‘The Last Time I Saw You’ opens with a gargantuan distorted riff via Simon, while Foxx addresses a mythic “you”, waxing lyrical on our submissive relationship to this omnipotent presence (god, technology, who knows?), in an altered and pseudo robotic vocal affect: “If you’re the prophet then we must be the loss, if you're the cut and style, then we must be the cloth.” A ferocious torrent of noise appears to be attempting to break from its restraints, but Foxx keeps it trained, never letting the situation become unmanageable. It’s a pop song barely concealing its furor and indignant rage beneath the surface.

Few artists have been able to so totally synthesise the theoretical underpinnings and aesthetic gestures of the avant-garde with pop cultural work to the extent that Foxx has consistently been able to. His art pop is akin to mid-20th century modernist fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Just as Newton and Bourdin suffused works of ostensible advertising with the seductively fetishized codes of surrealism and dada, Foxx has suffused pop and electronic music with the literary stylisations of writers like JG Ballard and Alain-Robbe Grillet and conceptual theories of modernist artists like Giorgio di Chirico and Paul Delvaux. In Foxx’s music, the barriers separating the avant-garde and mass culture disintegrate and the two artistic modes become indistinguishable.

Foxx makes both avant-garde music that is simultaneously hyper-addictive and listenable and pop music that is simultaneously embedded with the bewildering ambiguity and thematic complexity of the avant-garde. His influence is immense, notable on both avant-garde artists who incorporate the signifiers of pop and electro artists, like Gazelle Twin, and on electro-pop artists who gesture towards more outré sounds, like Finlay Shakespeare.

Howl is certainly at the more pop-oriented end of Foxx releases, and that is its strength. In 2020, in which pop music is either flagrantly disposable or merely masked in a kind of abject fashion visual package to distract from sonically normative and banal work (Silent Servant, 100 Gecs), it is nothing short of glorious to hear new music by John Foxx and the Maths that is maximalist, hi-fi and addictive while it is also intellectually dense, provocative, and cryptically experimental.