It should be telling that Foxygen vocalist Sam France shouting "Freak out!" near the end of "Oh Yeah" is immediately followed by one of the most instrumentally beautiful moments on We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. Given the band's tripped-out track record, such exclamations would be taken wisely to signify impending sonic carnage, but Foxygen have (somewhat) reigned in their shape-shifting psychedelic sound, using a tighter mix to give more credence to the lyrics and actually following conventional song structures more often than they did on their 2011 debut. There is still a lot of nuance to these tracks, though. The songwriting is still pretty complex all things considered, never really afraid to pull out the experimental edge that makes their indie pop so interesting, but not leaning on it, either. The dramatic shifts we heard on Take the Kids Off Broadway happen more subtly though a variety of instrumentation, helping Foxygen keep songs full of sonic detail.
For all the strings and horns these guys like to throw in, the bass/guitar playing and vocals are still the best parts of this record. Check out the octave jumps right before the chorus on "No Destruction" for some smooth 4-string riffage, the aforementioned crescendo at the end of "Oh Yeah" or the dual crisp guitar lines on "Shuggie," and as the record's leading single that song is a good cross-section of what's going on here. In typical Foxygen fashion, it's chock full of tempo changes, but refers to its own constituent sections, giving it a kind of verse-chorus structure, though each section is more like a guideline as it's approached differently each time around. The lyrics tell a tale of lost love in the band's quirky style - "I met your daughter the other day and that was weird / She had rhinoceros-shaped earrings in her ears" - with a sly bit of humour to boot - "You don't love me? / That's news to me."
The lyrics overall delve into a strange mix of spirituality, surrealism and love, often making religious references but in a context that makes them seem very abstract and somehow related to the band's penchant for psychedelia. "On Blue Mountain" serves as a perfect example (that shit gets noisy at the end, eh?), seeking salvation in something transcendent, though it's not entirely defined as spiritual or entirely defined at all, for that matter, and also reliant on a personal relationship. France is looking for a connection, whether that's with another person or with the supernatural. We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic never really stops pursuing this philosophical agenda, but also doesn't take it too seriously. Peace and magic are best treated that way anyway, and lines like "You don't have to be an asshole, you're not in Brooklyn anymore" provide nice respite from the oft-confusing, oft-intriguing psychedelic existentialism.
This album, like its predecessor, is very referential to other artists at points. Besides the shameless Dylan rip off on "No Destruction," ~12 seconds of Talking Heads a good chunk of the way through "Shuggie" and the persistent Bowie influence pervading the vocals and songwriting, I have to wonder about a renewed Beatles tinge, of course, and suspect a possible Can shout out on "Oh Yeah" (great vocals, tight drumming, mention of soup). Foxygen's aural name-dropping ends up producing more than the sum of its parts though, and the ADD-esque frantic changes in their music suggests an eagerness to fit in as many ideas as possible, no matter what their inspiration, which seems to imply that their derivative style isn't necessarily practiced out of trend-hopping laziness. Were that the case, it would be easy to bang out a few more takes on "Shuggie" and call it a day, but we get the whole spectrum here. Even the closing two tracks cross the distance between fire-spitting weirdo psych and poised introspection without batting an eye.
Whereas Take the Kids Off Broadway seemed to lean on three or four exceptional tunes, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic is more cohesive. It requires a few full spins to make its case to anyone who likes that first LP, as there isn't as much of the immediacy that made tunes like "Make It Known" so exciting. But the more intelligible lyrics and mid-fi production keep things entertaining and give it the feeling of a fully fleshed-out work. Give We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic some attention and I think you'll agree that if anyone's gonna lay claim to such a prestigious title it may as well be Foxygen.