Is forward always the right direction?
If you’ve been a fan of Foster the People, that’s a question you’re going to be confronted with by Supermodel, their latest record. That’s because Supermodel is a quantum leap forward for the band from their smash-hit 2011 record Torches. Supermodel has to dwell in the mighty shadow of Torches, at least initially. Torches spawned hit after hit after hit. Few bands in recent memory have made the kind of splash Foster the People did with their very first album.
So how does Supermodel compare? Writer Mark Foster (and Paul Epworth, along with assorted other co-writers) was pretty kind to us music critics: He told us exactly what he set out to do with this album on its lead single “Coming of Age”:
You know I try to live without regrets
I’m always moving forward and not looking back
But I tend to leave a trail of dead / while I’m moving ahead
And so I’m stepping away
Cause I got nothing to say
Feels like, feels like it’s coming
It feels like, feels like I’m coming of age
Foster the People have always played with deeper themes than you’d find on your average dance-rock record — “Pumped Up Kicks” has the school shooting subject, “Waste” is a heartfelt tale of standing by a friend recovering from illness, addiction or loss. Yet what we loved most about them was the hectic, carefree beats, falsetto wailing and electronic flourishes. You get the sense from “Coming of Age” that Foster feels it’s time to leave some of that behind — he’s got so much more to say. To say it, he’s going to have to leave behind the surface-level dance rock.
As a result, Supermodel sounds startlingly different from Torches.
Everything from Torches was synthetic, uptempo, heavy on the keys with a danceable beat. Supermodel begins with guitar-based jam “Are You What You Want to Be?”. It’s anthemic in the chorus, but the verses are syncopated and world-infused, and find Foster nearly scatting rather than singing. Track two, “Ask Yourself”, features sparking-bright acoustic guitar, very reminiscent of Grouplove. “Nevermind” starts up with flamenco-inspired guitar plucking, synth pad swells and more syncopated percussion. A Xylophone even shows up.
What’s going on here? Foster the People have come of age. What we all hoped for was another great Foster the People record with more electronic beats and razor-sharp hooks. Torches II. But Foster the People are moving forward, telling deeper stories, and their sound has matured to match that lyric. Themes emerge of a man who sees a broken world, and is powerless to make sense of it. “Are You What You Want to Be?” Asks how we can be ok with a world that exploits and ignores the poor. “Ask Yourself” begs for a friend to find peace, even as he strives for bigger and better things. The biggest surprise on the record is “Nevermind,” expressing frustration with the search for existential truth:
Yeah it’s hard to know the truth
In this post-modernist view
Where absolutes are seen as relics
And laughed out of the room
By the time “Pseudologia Fantastica” ends, you’re exhausted. But this time, it’s not from air drumming, chair dancing or however you get down in the privacy of your own home. It’s from pure, existential dread. But then, at last, we arrive at “Best Friend”. It took seven tracks to get to it, but “Best Friend” is more than just the best song on the record. It’s unadulterated, Torches-esque fun, decked out with a Motown brass section. But our joy comes with context this time. Even if the world is messed up and there’s little we can do to improve the situation, we can always be there for our friends: “When your best friends are strung out / You’ll do everything you can / Cause you’re never gonna let it get ‘em down.”
After having ventured deeper into despair than most pop records dare take us, “Best Friend” is downright therapeutic. That momentum carries over to the grungy, fuzzy “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon,” but not much farther. “Goats in Trees” is Bon Iver-ish and forgettable, while the operatic vocal on the chorus of “The Truth” just doesn’t feel at home. These are definitely the record’s low points.
Thankfully, Foster brings it home on Supermodel’s finale, “Fire Escape”: Four-and-a-half minutes of a vacant acoustic guitar, vibraphone and the odd, distant piano chord. Over the minimal arrangement, Foster mourns out a fantasy of sacrificing himself so the city of Los Angeles can escape pain along his “spine made of iron”.
I see the seasons change
All the young faces come and replace the dying ones
Sit out on Lexington and Vine
All the pimps and prostitutes wave you down at stopping signs
Save yourself, save yourself, yourself
From a group best known for their upbeat, dancefloor-ready hits, this song — this whole record — is a massive surprise. It is also achingly, devastatingly beautiful. Out of 11 tracks, there’s only a few that remind one of the old Foster the People. Really only “Best Friend” would fit in snugly alongside anything off of Torches. It would be easy to bemoan the fact that this doesn’t feel like a sequel to Torches and write this record off as a failure. But give it a chance. There’s still a part of me that’s sad I won’t get the feeling of listening to “Helena Beat” for the first time again. But I wouldn’t think of trading that feeling for the chills induced by my first listen of “Fire Escape.”
Forward isn’t always better. But for Foster the People, on Supermodel, it was the right direction.