X Ambassadors push boundaries with new multimedia project

NEW YORK (AP) — To say the third, full-length album from X Ambassadors has a lot going on would be a little bit of an understatement.

It’s a concept album about a fledgling superhero but also a trip into Jungian psychology and a valentine to old-fashioned radio dramas. It has so much going on that it has inspired a companion podcast.

“Anyone who knows our music at this point knows that we try lots of different things,” says keyboardist Casey Harris. “So bear with us and I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“The Beautiful Liar” takes the form of an audiobook and tells the story of a blind teenager who struggles with anxiety, discovers her long-dormant superpowers and, eventually, attains self-acceptance. Her story is told in a series of songs interspersed by a few unhinged rants and smooth-tongued chapter narrations.

“We had a lot more time to kind of create this world and that’s probably why we ended up going so ambitious and making a podcast and an album,” says lead singer Sam Nelson Harris, Casey’s brother.

The seed of the project came when the brothers were messing around in the studio with some of the new songs and started adding little audiobook-type narrative snippets.

That was an inside joke: Growing up in Ithaca, New York, the Harris brothers listened to a lot of books-on-tape and radio dramas, getting lost in the various soundscapes. Maybe they could make a similarly immersive album?

“The Beautiful Liar” would also dig deeply into Sam Harris’ lifelong struggle to stay on top of things and keep things together. That sense of responsibility has often been too much.

“I started to see it start to crack a little bit over the last couple of years. And it scared me. So every time something scares me, I run towards it.”

He had been obsessed with the idea of a cartoon shadow that follows people around, like a shadow self inspired by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. “I came up with this just random story about a blind girl whose shadow comes to life and starts talking to her and describing the world to her and guiding her through it.”

They picked a girl to be a superhero because they believe girls are underrepresented in the masked-and-caped superhero world and made her blind since they know that world intimately: Casey has been blind from birth.

At one point during an interview, Sam Harris had a realization that the shadow may also have played a role in the brothers’ relationship. Could he be the shadow for his brother?

“The shadow also is a guiding voice, right? It helps guide her and helps her kind of move and navigate through the world,” Sam says to his brother. “And sometimes I wonder, ‘Have I done too much or done too little to help you in life?’” He cuts to the chase: “Am I that overbearing protective entity?” His brother responds: “I don’t think so. We’ll get back to you on that.” They both laugh.

The album and the skits — Sam Harris improvised all of it, including the haughty announcement that the audiobook was written by the fictional “Irving P. Neville” — became the springboard for the podcast.

On the podcast, Emily Hampshire of “Schitt’s Creek” will voice the Shadow, Rory Anne Dahl will play the little girl, and Harris has a role as well as produces. The first episode will be available Oct. 20.

It’s a big step for the band, whose lineup also includes Adam Levin on drums. Their 2015 debut “VHS” yielded the hits “Unsteady” and “Renegade,” and their follow-up “Orion” in 2019 had “Boom” and “Hey Child.”

“We’ve been lucky with our core fans that have stuck with us from the beginning. They’ve seen us evolve, I think a lot,” says Sam Harris. “We really love to try on new clothes.”

Making the “The Beautiful Liar” has already had some healing power, at least for Sam Harris. The album is named after what he calls the voice in his head that always criticizes and second-guesses him.

“That’s something I’m constantly battling and that’s kind of what the title refers to,” he says. “I don’t know if it’ll ever fully go away, but it’s definitely gotten a lot quieter. It’s definitely gotten a lot quieter.”


Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits