As kids growing up in the New York town of Ithaca, X Ambassadors frontman Sam Nelson Harris and his brother Casey Harris spent many a bedtime listening to radio dramas and books-on-tape, happily disappearing into stories of outer space and the supernatural and far-off fantasy worlds.
“Because Casey’s blind, that was really the only media we could both appreciate, and I remember us becoming obsessed with all these sci-fi fantasy stories,” says Sam. On their new album The Beautiful Liar, the multi-platinum-selling alt-rock band pay homage to those beloved fictions of their childhood, sharing a selection of songs that together tell the tale of a blind teenage girl discovering her long-dormant superpowers. Accompanied by a first-of-its-kind narrative podcast, the result is an immersive and visionary body of work, providing a powerful escape into an alternate reality while exploring all-too-real themes of alienation, anxiety, and existential unease.
The third full-length from X Ambassadors - a trio whose lineup includes Casey on keyboards and Adam Levin on drums - The Beautiful Liar is the latest and most ambitious outcome of the band’s hyper-creative tendencies. To that end, X Ambassadors augmented the album’s storytelling component by weaving in a series of interludes that propel its wildly original plot forward.
"It’s essentially a superhero origin story, of a blind girl named Clementine whose shadow comes to life and who develops the ability to control and harness the frequencies around her,” Sam explains. “The shadow’s born from a fear of her own power... a fear of the more unstable, dangerous parts of herself. Eventually, she learns to accept her new powers and in turn, accept herself.” Mostly created with producer Andrew Wells, The Beautiful Liar brings Clementine’s story to glorious and radiant life, encompassing a sound that’s endlessly explosive yet intricately detailed.
The lead single from The Beautiful Liar, 'My Own Monster' sets the stage for X Ambassadors’ layered examination of the psyche’s darkest corners. “For a while now I’ve been obsessed with the Jungian idea of the shadow self—the parts of ourselves we learn to repress, because we realize they’re not going to help keep us safe,” says Sam. “From a very young age we’re taught to hide the parts that are too big or loud or dangerous, and I wanted to explore what happens when that shadow self suddenly comes to life.”
A groove-heavy piece of noir-pop, 'My Own Monster' captures the very moment when Clementine’s shadow becomes animated, unfolding in dreamy Mellotron tones and Theremin-like guitar lines with an otherworldly effect. “There’s definitely a spooky quality to the song; at some points it feels almost demonically cartoonish,” says Sam.
On the title track to The Beautiful Liar, X Ambassadors intensify that sublimely warped element, tapping into a sensibility that Sam likens to “Looney Tunes on acid.” Made with Wells and producer Ricky Reed, 'Beautiful Liar' merges its mercurial textures and trip-hop-inspired beats with a soulful vocal performance from Sam, whose falsetto channels a toxic desperation. “We came up with that song toward the end of the Trump era, after years of being so horrified to watch this man abuse his power,” he says. “It’s sung from the perspective of someone begging the person in power to promise them that everything will be fine—it’s saying, ‘I don’t care if you’re lying to me. Just tell me it’s all going to be okay.’”
In a poignant twist on that sentiment, 'Okay' arrives as one of the most tender moments on The Beautiful Liar, a heavy-hearted but triumphant epic produced by the band with Wells and Tommy English. “I wrote ‘Okay’ when my wife was dealing with some extremely dark, life-and-death stuff,” says Sam. “It was very tenuous. I was struggling because I wasn’t able to tell my wife that everything would be okay, so the best way I could communicate was to write her a song. It ended up being about learning how to live with the discomfort and pain, instead of just trying to find some way around it.”
For X Ambassadors, taking on such an expansive and adventurous project opened the floodgates of their already-unbridled creativity, granting them free reign to journey into new sonic territory. In the making of the ineffably catchy 'Adrenaline', for instance, the band set their sights on redefining the parameters of the prototypical arena-rock anthem. “In the past we’ve done songs like ‘Jungle,’ which is a very aggro rock song where I’m shouting the whole time,” says Sam, referring to their platinum-certified 2015 hit. “With ‘Adrenaline’ I wanted to see if we could make something that felt just as anthemic, but where I’m whispering for most of the song.”
On 'Conversations with my Friends', X Ambassadors nod to their lifelong love of classic punk bands like The Damned and The Stooges, delivering a minute-long burst of brain-bending vitriol. Another brilliantly unhinged moment, 'Theatre of War' finds Sam slipping his impression of vaudevillian song-and-dance man Jimmy Durante into the band’s bruising commentary on the military-industrial complex. “I wrote that when we were inches away from going to war with Iran, and it seemed very apparent that Trump was hoping to start a war to distract everyone from his low approval ratings,” says Sam. “We turned it into a song about a guy who’s pedalling war as the ultimate entertainment, and it made me really happy to imagine how confused everyone would be when we put it out.”
Despite their sobering undercurrent, songs like 'Theatre of War' shed light on the more madcap and irreverent side of the band’s personality. “I’d gotten tired of us always being portrayed as so serious and heart-on-sleeve, and I wanted to show our weird sense of humour in a way we never had before,” says Sam. Those oddball inclinations are especially apparent on the interludes spliced throughout The Beautiful Liar, with Sam playing the part of everyone from the story’s staid and stodgy narrator to the fiendish shadow creature to Clementine herself. “I let myself go into a very theatrical space, and spent hours talking to myself alone in my room,” notes Sam, who drew from his theatre and acting background in fully inhabiting each character on the album.
Set to premiere the same day as the album release, The Beautiful Liar podcast will recount Clementine’s story over the course of eight episodes created in collaboration with L.A.-based audio production studio QCODE Media. “I discovered the whole narrative-podcast scene a while back, and it’s very much like those radio dramas that Casey and I grew up listening to,” says Sam. “I’d had so much fun creating the interludes for the album and kept thinking, ‘How can we make this even bigger?’, and a podcast felt like the perfect way to go deeper into the story.”
At the same time, X Ambassadors have constructed an entire visual world around The Beautiful Liar, beginning with the partially animated video for 'My Own Monster'. In tribute to a scene from the 1945 musical comedy Anchors Aweigh in which Gene Kelly dances alongside Jerry Mouse from Tom and Jerry, the black-and-white clip finds Sam performing a choreographed routine with his own shadow, injecting a bit of classic-cartoon humour into the track’s chilling mystique.
Now at work on putting together a multi-sensory live show, X Ambassadors have found infinite joy and gratification in pushing the limits of their outsize imagination. “I feel like this is the first time we’ve done everything exactly the way we want to, without compromise, which is so exciting for us,” says Sam. “It took a long time and a lot of work to make it all come together, but it’s been completely worth it to take this very specific vision and see it all the way through. I hope when people hear this record they hear us being the band we’ve always we wanted to be—in every single possible sense—and I hope they have just as much fun as we had creating it.”