If you’ve followed along, the first cut on Foxygen’s long-awaited fifth album, “Follow the Leader,” is the payoff, everything you’ve hoped for from a band that has the insatiable swagger of a basement Exile-era Stones and the pomp and circumstance of ELO. Replete with a 37-piece orchestra, it encapsulates that which they’ve always aspired to be. It’s dramatic, catchy, whipsmart, and filled with sweeping strings, horns, and a refrain with the kind of endurance it unfortunately takes to endure all of Hang (Jagjaguwar).
The history of Sam France and Jonathan Rado, as Foxygen, is already one of ramshackle myth. They spent a half-decade taping their wild musical ambitions as overlong cassettes. Then the duo made a record that could easily have been the Aeroplane Over the Sea for the hyper-nomalized millennial generation of placental, disaffected youth: We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. (Never has there been a more truthful statement from a band.) They were subsequently misunderstood by that same instant-gratification crowd when they released their sprawling 2014 album, …And Star Power, a double album that has grown in stature with time. It’s a packed masterpiece that needs room to breathe to be believed. Of course, that’s what Foxygen wants newcomers to glean from Hang. Except there’s little air here.
There’s always been the threat that Foxygen would employ the services of two dozen adroit virtuosos with a competent composer (here Trey Pollard) as co-pilot. Even after retreating to their respective corners to make solo records (both albums are worth your time), it was inevitable that France and Rado would eventually create their Pet Sounds—or Rocky Horror Picture Show, as the case may be.
Immediately after the crescendos of “Follow the Leader,” the duo follows a rambling path with too much braggadocio on “Avalon.” Fans of the band are familiar with the flowering maximalist approach, and with the symphony at their beckon call, Foxy goes for broke. They waver throughout between schlock and camp, like a Roxy Music pinball machine on tilt, harboring a grotesque theater of waltzes, doo-wop, ragtime, cocaine-gilded yacht rock, and Disney scores. But France and Rado are way too advanced, as you can hear in the brain-melting arpeggio that ends “Mrs. Adams.” The trio of “Avalon,” “Mrs. Adams,” and the beautifully overwrought opus, “America,” is a difficult pill to swallow if you’re only looking for sheer pop and breezy moments.
The cathartic exhale of “On Lankershim” erases the anxious trompe le monde of the record’s heavy first half. Foxygen plays the song cool, reeling back the bombast and replacing it with a Sweetheart of the Rodeo–like twang. It gives the impression the duo is at their best when settled down, leaving that room to breathe. It’s tempered, reflective drama that makes the closer, “Rise Up,” the most powerful ending one could hope for. Hang is thoughtfully succinct; at 32 minutes it’s hard to imagine listeners holding out for much longer. It’s hard to tell if Hang is where Foxygen are headed or if this chapter is simply a big expensive laugh. Either way, it’s hard to think of the two as anything but prodigies, with almost too much power.