For better and for worse, Foals’ debut Antidotes is a record of youthful energy. Whether you find the likes of “Cassius” and “Balloons” annoying or twitchily captivating, you can’t deny the restless exuberance that courses through them. Even when the band slowed down a bit on “Olympic Airways” and the stellar “Big Big Love (Fig. 2)”, the music still seemed a little frantic. Antidotes was promising, but it hasn’t aged terribly well. Now, by the time you get half way through the video for “Cassius”, it seems a bit tiresome as well as tiring.
But part of the reason Antidotes hasn’t aged well is that the quintet have so convincingly bettered it. Total Life Forever has a grandiose title (which the endearingly shaggy title track even insists “will never be enough”), and given the rough charms of the debut, it was easy to be leery of that confidence until you hear “Blue Blood”. As soon as Foals’ guitars begin their patient chime, it’s clear that this is a band suddenly and surprisingly in full control of its powers.
Total Life Forever is a lot more “Big Big Love (Fig. 2)” than “Cassius”, but that doesn’t mean the band have lost any of their old energy. They’ve marshaled it, so that songs like “Blue Blood”, “Black Gold” and “After Glow” build up to the kinds of kinetic surges that came off as a bit unfocused when they were all Foals had to offer. Now a song like the astounding “Spanish Sahara” sounds as seething and powerful as the hypnotically roiling sea of splintered ice featured in its video. Although several of the songs here are longer and less puppyishly immediate than their old singles, witness the way the delayed explosion of “Spanish Sahara” folds beautifully into the insistent rhythms and shoegazing synth and guitar washes of “This Orient”, the most ‘difficult’ track accompanying the most anthemic one perfectly. The lyrics of the latter track show another way Foals have improved; whereas too many of their early lyrics seemed to be trying too hard for either opacity or emotional impact, the repeated “it’s your heart / that gives me that Western feeling” here is beautiful in its evocative ambiguity.
Total Life Forever is both more varied and more focused than Foals’ previous work, succeeding everywhere from the booming surges of “Miami” to the genuinely creepy “Alabaster”, about a girl who lives in “a house filled with religious regret and infinite debt”. It’s hard not to compare Foals’ progression with other acts that, while sounding very different, have made similar evolutionary leaps. Recently the Horrors went from a debut that, like Antidotes, could almost have been parodic to a sophomore album that’s almost insanely assured and satisfying by comparison. But as much as I love Primary Colors, I can’t deny that it’s as much homage as original work. While Total Life Forever isn’t sui generis (recalling faintly in turn anything from imperial-era Cure to Jack Penate’s recent hard-left with Everything Is New), it feels fresher. And while this album isn’t quite up to the likes of Remain in Light, like the Talking Heads, Foals have moved from spindly, frenetic, fashionable guitar songs to a much fuller, more groove-oriented sound that reveals them to be more humane and wise than the early years might have indicated.
Total Life Forever ends with “What Remains”, which is one long, half-frozen crescendo. It’s a beautiful piece or work, and like the rest of the album one that simultaneously sounds nothing like the band that made Antidotes and like the only possible way that band could have gone in order to remain vital. It should probably be said that the other band whose trajectory Total Life Forever brings to mind is Radiohead. If this is their The Bends, it remains to be seen whether they can eventually produce another evolutionary leap on the orders of OK Computer and Kid A, but for the first time that kind of greatness doesn’t seem out of the question for Foals.