Birmingham-based emo-punkers Johnny Foreigner have been around for a while now. They released their first proper EP (Arcs Across the City) in 2007. This means nearly a decade of their particular brand of ghost-obsessed, kinetic boy/girl vocal-harmonied indie rock. In the almost ten years since they sang about Champagne Girls and boys in Misfits t-shirts there have been minor victories, near-misses, disappointments and online feuds with the NME. Upcoming album, Mono No Aware, released on Alcopop! Records, is their fifth, but what is new this time around?
Unsurprisingly there is still a clutch of the kind of hyperactive pop-punky songs that the band have made their name with: the sing-along splendour of ‘The X and The O’ is firmly in the classic Johnny Foreigner wheelhouse, while the off kilter jangle of recent single ‘If You Can’t Be Honest, Be Awesome’ recalls everything from ‘Cranes and Cranes and Cranes and Cranes’ to ‘Le Sigh’. Mono No Aware also has future anthems-in-waiting in the form of the crunchy ‘Undevestator’ and ‘I Can Show You The Way to Grand Central’, which includes a surging one-off bottom-heavy riff breakdown that is delightfully at odds with the track’s regretful “This is not a heartbreak song” climax. Also note how these track titles are pseudo-sequels to past tracks: ‘Devestator’ and ‘New Street, You Can Take It’ respectively – while there is ample invention on the album they still connect their past with their present.
The songs where Johnny Foreigner stray from their usual formula is where Mono No Aware are the most compelling. Opener ‘Mount Everests’ has Alexei Berrow’s humble doo-wop acoustic confession (“I can’t foresee a day when we buy speedboats from this”) sweetly contrast with previous albums’ cocksure intro tracks – an early sign of Mono No Aware‘s more considered direction – and this sentiment is reflected and with the whisper-quiet Kelly Southern-led closer ‘Decants the Atlantic’. Whereas Johnny Foreigner’s lightning-fast start-stop dynamics and over-excited vocals have been frequently compared to Chicago emo band Cap’n Jazz, on this album the band dip into a more lush, intricate and mid-tempo mode comparable to later Kinsella endeavour, American Football. This is most striking on the instrumental that follows ‘If You Can’t Be Honest, Be Awesome’, not just vaguely nodding towards the sombre math rock encased on American Football’s 1998 self-titled album but referencing it wholesale with its inspired use of a sorrowful horn melody instantly evoking that album’s ‘The Summer Ends’.
The overall slower-pace is tackled lyrically on the album’s centre-piece and inarguable pinnacle: ‘Our Lifestyles Incandescent’. The track features an arresting Southern vocal performance, shadowed on the bridge by an ultra-low-end disembodied vocal that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Timbaland-concoction, while still having time for a stellar verse from an as-yet-unknown guest-vocalist (Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke? Everything Everything’s Jonathan Higgs? Mr Bon Iver himself, Justin Vernon?) [Edit: it’s Nnamdi Ogbonnaya]. ‘Our Lifestyles Incandescent”s chorus stutters and heaves in a purposely flailing yet triumphant manner; a canny metaphor for the musicians, now in their 30s, tenaciously continuing with their looming, mountainous musical career choice: tired, out of breath, but still they venture onward and upward. Berrow sums it up with the lyric: “Just cause we don’t party like we used to/Doesn’t mean that we’re not alive”.
This new deliberate version of Johnny Foreigner is not going to be for everyone. While some would rather the band release an album-full of Arcs Across The City-energied material, this is not the version of the band that exists in 2016. They’ve grown, matured and gained an extra member. Lightspeed emo punk isn’t something a band can maintain indefinitely while remaining tru to themselves. The band’s realisation that radio-play was never an option has put less emphasis on chorus-focused single-ready tracks giving these 34-minutes an all-pervading ebb-and-flow and thematic harmony that their previous albums have lacked. Mono No Aware refers to “a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence, or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life”. Simply put: after time things change, and though it can be upsetting, isn’t it great that things can change in such unexpected but awesome ways? And so to relate this to band and the album Mono No Aware: Over the past decade, Johnny Foreigner have changed, though it might be upsetting to some, isn’t it great that Johnny Foreigner can change in such an unexpected but awesome way? Let’s see what the next ten years of Johnny Foreigner will bring. Hopefully it, like Mono No Aware, can be both honest and awesome.