It starts with the ellipsis in the album title … And Star Power. Foxygen, the shrinking heirs to Malkmus’ shabby pop throne, open their batshit third LP with negative space, a breathless moment before the title itself. The pause operates as a sort of invocation, an imagined and dramatic delay before the band conjures some magisterial reveal. The magic of the rest of the record is implied. But the trouble with magic is that it needs to appear real: Raise the stakes too high, or make the scenery too fantastical and the audience assumes it’s a trick, dismissing its complexity in kind.
For an illusion to function, the audience must at once know they are being fooled and wonder how it was done. The latter part presents the trouble. Magicians call this the “Too Perfect” theory, a phrase enshrined by illusionist Rick Johnsson in 1971. If the illusion is “too perfect,” the audience assumes an easy solution, rather than wondering how it was done. As Adam Gopnik wrote in a New Yorker essay on this topic a few years ago, “Illusion only affects us when it is incomplete.” … And Star Power runs for more than 80 minutes in its 24 tracks; it is anything but incomplete. Despite its wanton desire to be magical, … And Star Power instead alternates between the chaotic and the banal. It’s no secret how this trick was done, the retrograde retreading of rock cliches as outdated as they are predictable.
Foxygen chases the supernatural on … And Star Power, but the ways around the “Too Perfect” theory according to Gopnik are either to rough up the “claim,” the presentation of the trick or to increase the proof, the evidence of the Prestige or reveal. While Foxygen appears more than able to rough down the claim, the proof is less certain. The band’s well-documented internal struggles, bananas stage antics, which included singer Sam France breaking his leg in Minneapolis last year, make for the type of Almost Famous lore supported by neither fans nor the current commercial landscape in music. Somewhere in the swirling psychedelia of … And Star Power is the idea, even presented somewhat ironically, that Foxygen is a big band, that France and his co-conspirator Jonathan Rado are rock stars. If there’s a winning moment on the record, it is surely that these two presumed even their fans wanted 80-minutes of their digressions through rock’s back catalogue, that anyone even seriously invested in their band’s pseudo-break up in 2013. It is here worth-noting that Star Power was the title of a France solo record that Rado demanded his partner take down from the Internet. How much of … And Star Power represents Rado and France trying to work things out in unsexy long-form is for them to know, but the real danger is that they assume the listening public would be so indulgent as to clap along.
… And Star Power opens with its best and worst moments, “Star Power Airlines”, a second brand of invocation, this one to the world of cacophony the band wants the listener so desperately to categorize as dynamism. At one point in “Star Power Airlines” a voice comes through the maw to declare, “It’s society, man!”, exactly the type of supposed stoner seriousness that populates certain college campuses with annoying density. The premise is that anyone cares about your late-night big ideas, the drunkenness of youth, the recklessness of not knowing that the world is an anonymous and slow-moving ocean liner, steaming on into the night even if you throw yourself overboard in protest or drama. The greatest sin of youth is the assumption that anyone values your meltdown. “Star Power Airlines” and the album that follows is, in this sense, adorable and easily dismissed: a musical tantrum on the floor of a department store, the teen misanthropy of stealing of the baby Jesus from a Christmas display or throwing empty bottles of alcohol at fast food restaurants and daring anyone to stop you. But in the type of frustrating countervailing that is all over … And Star Power, the band follows “Star Power Airlines” with the satisfying “How Can You Really”, a warm piano progression colliding with horns in the chorus. Foxygen holds the power to both unwire and rewire themselves, a talent they festishize on … And Star Power. The band pushes the conceit to the brink of frustration and destruction, winking and pulling back at the last moment. For a record nearly two-and-a-half times longer than its predecessor, this will-they-or-won’t-they methodology isn’t excitement; it’s punishment.
At its finest, the record pulls its nose from navel-gazing about band problems and the next big idea and unleashes the type of updated psychedelic pop that trends the band from its Malkmus indebtedness to Lou Reed footnotes. On “Star Power II: Star Power Nite”, the second part of a four-part arc in the middle of the first disc, and what should be a massively annoying bit of self-reference, the chanting chorus is instead as chaotic as it is satisfying. Seeming to recognize the fatalism contained flirting with losing control, the band chants on the subsequent track, “What are we good for if we can’t make it?” You picture France falling off the stage in Minneapolis, the quiet moments in the ambulance, giving his information to the EMTs, explaining what happened, fumbling to find the insurance card that might or might not have been behind license and credit cards in his wallet: No one wins when rock and roll ends up in the ER.
The album’s second half, its most lugubrious and grandiloquent, is best told through some of its song titles: “666”, “Flowers”, “Can’t Contextualize My Mind”, and “The Game”. It is a band knowingly going for broke. Occasionally, Foxygen appears in on the joke as they moan, “This song is called ‘Hot Summer'” before launching into the organ freak-out, “Hot Summer”. But the irony is always attended by seriousness, the continued violation of the “Too Perfect” theory in reverse. The band here has engineered a fantastic and self-conscious collapse, a bit of trickery that doesn’t titillate and provoke; it bores. Arguably the best song on the record’s second movement is “Cannibal Holocaust”, a lurid, tired title. Even the use of Sam France’s voice from his bedroom recordings made as an eight-year old to complicate the menace of “Cold Winter/Freedom” reads as dishonest.
How self-aware is this meltdown? Does it go back to the recordings of an elementary schooler saying, “Hold on to your butts” in his bedroom? Consistent provocation breeds numbness. By the end of … And Star Power, the mystery isn’t in the mess—the mess is predictable—but instead the magic of the record lies in the belief in itself. The final trick is Foxygen believing anyone will stick around for the final reveal.