After three albums as the band’s lead vocalist, John Foxx (Dennis Leigh) left Ultravox to pursue a solo career. A prime factor in the group’s original sound, Foxx was, by extension, a major influence on the new romantic movement that followed in its wake. Fortunately, both Ultravox and Foxx solo continued to make music of quality and distinction.
Metamatic is Foxx’s first venture alone into the world of synthesizers, Ultravox’s subsequent instrument of choice. In emulation of his own work and Conny Plank’s production on Ultravox’s Systems of Romance, Foxx (aided by another synthesist and a bassist) finds the perfect counterpart for his themes of alienation and dislocation in sterile, minimalist electronic sounds. His vocals are oddly distant, like echoes, but the record has an honesty and directness that are quite affecting. (John Foxx is a Canadian compilation that rearranges a number of songs from Metamatic.)
The Garden is a lush, thick paean to Foxx’s catholicism and the mysticism that has always lurked beneath his austere urbanity. Pastoral in tone, the album flourishes under a denser sound, replete with acoustic instruments that offset the onslaught of synthesizers. Foxx’s themes remain the same, which is good, and his songwriting and flair for imagery reach new peaks on masterpieces like “Europe After the Rain” and “Walk Away,” which provide melancholic views of familiar, mysterious worlds.
Co-produced by Foxx and Zeus B. Held, The Golden Section has a bizarrely Beatlesque sound on several tracks, mildly resembling the Fab Four’s late-career psychedelia. Foxx is his usual enigmatic, inventive self, spinning moody creations that neatly sidestep synthesizer clichés; the only flaw is in his dramatic vocals. “Endlessly” (also a single) is the album’s clear standout, a magnificent multi-level pop creation that parallels Foxx’s former group’s development while clearly displaying a character all his own. The cassette version has six extra tracks.
In Mysterious Ways deals largely in romantic clichés (e.g., “Stars on Fire,” “This Side of Paradise”) — in some cases, the title is the dominant lyric — and the bombast quotient is occasionally heightened by overuse of female backing vocals (girl-groupy on “Enter the Angel,” gospelly on “This Side of Paradise”). But Foxx’s earnest, electro-rock casanova charm somehow makes it work. From the dance-rock of “What Kind of Girl” to the Astral Weeks-iness of “Morning Glory,” the mix may not be all that original, but it’s still consistently entertaining.
After that lunge at the mainstream failed to connect with it, Foxx retired from music and concentrated on becoming a successful graphic artist and book designer. He developed a highly recognizable visual style — usually involving images of classical statuary superimposed with foliage or other textures. (The original cover for Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is one of his more notable creations. He also designed CD covers for Porcupine Tree.) Foxx cut a couple of dance singles with Bomb the Bass’ Tim Simenon in the early ’90s under the name Nation 12 and finally returned to recording under his own name in 1995.
Indulging the interest in Gregorian chant he first indicated on The Garden, Foxx created an album’s worth of his own neo-Gregorian soundscapes on Cathedral Oceans. Given the fact that one of the surprise hits of the previous year was the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos’ Chant, Cathedral Oceans probably wasn’t a completely goofy notion on Foxx’s part at the time, but longtime fans may well have been surprised and disappointed. Music to illuminate manuscripts to.
Teaming with producer/synthesist Louis Gordon, Foxx returned to the sounds and themes of Ultravox’s Systems of Romance and Metamatic on Shifting City. Foxx is still obsessed with the dislocations created by the modern world — at heart he’s a 19th-century romantic trapped in the computer age. Foxx and Gordon look backwards and forwards at the same time — while exploring retro sounds, they don’t ignore the advances of electronic dance music over the previous decade, and at times their music resembles techno artists like Underworld. A welcome return to form.
The Pleasures of Electricity proceeds in roughly the same direction, but feels more nostalgic for 1980 than the album it followed. Foxx continues to view everyday objects such as cars and cameras as if they were gifts to humanity from Dr. Who’s Daleks — exotic machines not to be trusted completely. Perhaps thinking it silly to write a distinctive synth riff and only use it once, Foxx recycles Metamatic‘s “Underpass” as “Invisible Women,” this time teaming the riff with a propulsive but rinky-dink rhythm track that sounds like it was lifted from a 2 Live Crew album. The music Foxx and Gordon create is definitely enjoyable — “Camera” is one of the nicest things Foxx has ever recorded — but it can’t escape the feeling of being a quaint exercise in retro-futurism. Still, who can better to revisit yesterday’s tomorrow than someone who created it in the first place. The current crop of synth-pop revivalists still have a lot they could learn from their ol’ Grandpa Foxx.
Given the increasingly robotic quality of Foxx’s vocals, one wants to give him the benefit of the doubt that the unimaginative and trite lyrics on Crash and Burn are his version of the “music the machines make” he sang about way back on Systems of Romance. Otherwise, the thought that the wordsmith of such vividly imaginative songs as “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “My Sex” has been reduced to the art-school “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”-isms of “Sidewalking” is too depressing to contemplate. The music continues to be cool, with the groovy but pointlessly named quasi-instrumental “Sex Video” standing out.
Foxx’s collaboration with Harold Budd is exactly what one would expect — moody, ambient soundscapes with prominent piano, much like Budd’s albums with Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins. Highly recommended for fans of Bud’s work.