Album Reviews

Foster The People – Supermodel

on May 01, 2014, 12:01am
Foster The People – Supermodel D+
Release Date
March 14, 2014
Label
Columbia Records
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd

It was easy to be cynical when Foster the People broke through with “Pumped Up Kicks”. Frontman/mastermind Mark Foster had, in fact, been working as a jingle writer for a while, so connecting the dots between soulless commercialism and the almost too-perfect indie pop wasn’t challenging. Foster himself didn’t shy away from that link: “I definitely learned from the commercial standpoint what works,” he told Rolling Stone in June 2011. That hook could easily be called contagious, even weaponized, designed in a lab to overpower the pop universe. And it did.

But after a few hundred more listens to the single, and a couple of spins through the accompanying album, there was some charm there. Sure, it was stylized, self-aware, maybe even calculating, but what pop music isn’t? Torches had a few more epic choruses to offer. And the guy can write a hook, and no one should be penalized for that. Taking a job that utilizes that ability sounds pretty reasonable. But more to the point: “Pumped Up Kicks” was just so gosh darn catchy.

That good will is lost pretty quickly, though, on the opening lines of their sophomore LP, Supermodel: “I woke up on Champs-Élysées to the djembe of Ghana/ A fine lady from Belize said, ‘You got the spirit of Fela.'” So begins “Are You What You Want to Be?”, like someone was handed a box of Vampire Weekend fridge magnets (complete with a backing track of West African rhythm and bouncing bass) and told to have at it. Foster goes on to make a veiled connection to insurrection of some sort (“The right words in the hands of dissidents with the fire/ Will rip apart the marrow from the bones of the liars”). Later, the MGMT-indebted, wonky disco of “Best Friend” might be the album’s best track, but even that gets weighted down some by talk of theta waves and celestial beings. These and lines about guerrillas and war machines littered throughout smack of a real effort at seriousnessand that effort doesn’t suit the kind of ultra-pop they produce, a genre built on apparent ease and immediate appeal.

Other tracks carry similar weight, particularly the eyebrow-raising “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon”. With the subtlety of a hammer to the head, Foster soapboxes for an unclear battle: “We’ve been crying for a leader to speak like they are prophets/ The blood of the forgotten wasn’t spilled without a purpose/ Or was it?” Later on the album, “The Truth” brings prophets back to the fore, again leaving intention vague and angsty. “A blinding call to prayer has touched my feet/ Like the call of the prophets/ A purpose is needed before you know that you know,” Foster coos over dubstep-adjacent bass, though only a few steps away from The Killers when things get pared down to echoed piano and limber percussion. On “Nevermind” (which lingers uncomfortably close to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” in its acoustic guitar core), he gets a bit more philosophical: “It’s hard to know the truth in this postmodernist view/ Where absolutes are seen as relics and laughed out of the room.” While an extreme of the spectrum, these clunkers are indicative of the album’s struggle at exploring heavy, dark topics.

But what about the darkness of “Pumped Up Kicks”? That one was about a shooting, and it didn’t overpower the pop. The difference here comes down in part to production. Whereas Foster’s vocals on “Kicks” were lo-fi mumbly on the verses and falsetto and grouped on that hook, Supermodel pushes him to the fore with a high-gloss sheen. The line “Just like an animal, I protect my pride” on single “Coming of Age” is a bit too twee on its own, but the glammy echo and ’80s neon framing highlight it even more. Throughout the album, Foster the People play on-the-nose karaoke backing band to their vocalist, leaping from facsimiles of The Bee Gees to Twin Shadow to a cauterized, sedated version of The Flaming Lips. None of these guises, though, fit seamlessly; none of the hooks that accompany those masks ever obscure the fact that the masks exist. At times the hooks aren’t strong enough, and at others the gloss-glopped production and genre choices are too overpowering to make that distinction.

When Foster goes for simplicity on “Fire Escape”, he sounds like a guy who means what he’s singing, like the acoustic guitar, lonely xylophone, angelic backing choir, and small-room echo weren’t choices, but necessities. The chorus (“I am a fire escape, my spine is made of iron/ My heart pumps old red paint/ Save yourself, save yourself”) is evocative if messy, and the entire song seems to be about the way Los Angeles destroys so many dreamers (and, I guess, acting as the sacrifice to save them?). It’s a bit unwieldy coming from a guy who made a big name for himself in the City of Angels. But the song sounds so genuine, especially when compared to the rest of Supermodel, that its cliches can be swept under the rug.

Either Supermodel was written as an attempt to chase the success of Torches, or it was written as an insistence that Foster is more than a disposable pop writer. And they gain ground on both of those goals, no matter which was intended. But ultimately, the album lacks that effortless cool that’s required for this kind of slick pop music, the type that powered “Pumped Up Kicks”. But Foster spent years before that song on other projects and ideas, struggling to find his voice. Surely, it didn’t come into being fully formed or without effort. Appropriately, Supermodel sounds like a band aggressively trying 11 different approaches to their next effortless sound. Equally appropriately, with increased attention comes increased expectations and increased scrutiny, neither of which are met by this sophomore release.

Essential Tracks: “Best Friend”, “Fire Escape”

12 comments

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Sarah
June 21, 2014 at 11:11 pm

In all honesty, I find this review almost a tad amateurish. I totally understand that tastes vary, but when it came down to analyzing this album with a critical, heaven forbid, even musical eye, I felt like the author of this was a bit… Sassy. And wrong. :) Hey, 80’s-infused indie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the combination of talented musicians and an amazing, TRUE writer make their music worth every note.

I only said “amateurish” because the author continually refrained back to “Pumped Up Kicks”. Ah yes, PUK… The song that truly fueled my initial interest, and yes, still holds my heart to this day! …But that song, along with so many of the other, far more complex, down-to-earth, exceptionally written songs by FTP? The very reason that song topped charts was due it’s qualities that will appeal to your general audiences, but one quality in particular being simplicity. The bouncy, tasteful, minor bass-line built tension right off the bat. The song wins you over for many reasons, but two things and undeniable, and that’s the combination of repetition and simplicity. I love the song a ton, but the critic seems to worship that one the most- Of all FTP songs. Not to make assumptions that the critic isn’t “musical”, but so many people are dragged into more simple songs because they aren’t as musical, and don’t have the knowledge or ability to pinpoint the more complex. Being/having been in band, I consider myself pretty musical. What I’m getting at here is, it seems this review was constructed around comparison to what was once a pretty pop song. But FTP has SO many more songs with meaning that reaches even further depths than those of PUK. I just think more people need to open their eyes to it. Not just Supermodel, but Torches as well! Both are extremely well-executed if you ask me, in lyrical and musical terms. The genres go many places, so they aren’t all for everyone, but I must say, their songs all seem to grab me by the throat, and unlike any music I’ve ever heard, hold on tight. I’ve never loved entire albums, and more to the point, for so long. I’ll never get tired of FTP as long as they keep up their work. :)

Sarah
June 21, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Sorry about my mini novel here, but my passion for FTP is strong ;) I respect differing viewpoints and all, but with Supermodel, the experience for me so far has been far too great to not let the world know. (I also apologize for the typos above, as I had to type the whole thing through “swype” and autocorrect…) Foster The People for the win! ;P

Mark Anthony DiSessa
May 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Horrible Review. Great Album. Great Live also.

Brendan
May 1, 2014 at 4:02 pm

I thought the album was excellent. I take exception with your criticism of his lyrics. First, most music this site and pitchfork review deal endlessly with love and heartbreak. That’s it. No matter how the music sounds, its the same subject matter over and over again. (Seriously, who has that many serious relationships between albums?!!?) Mr. Foster has the gall to explore outside that vein and you tear him to shreds. I thought his lyrics were creative, eclectic, and sincere. And I also think there was a generally cohesive philosophy to it all.

Second, your review reads like you read a book of lyrics, not having actually listened to the album. I thought each song had its own sound while also having enough in common to form an album. Although hard to compare, every song on the The War on Drugs’ latest album was the same monotonous sound.

I can listen to this album over and over again because from beginning to end, it is a journey going in all different directions; experimenting in different instrument, effects, and song structure. I mean you don’t even mention Pseudologia Fantastica; one of the bravest, creative, and complex songs I have heard in years.

And every song is catchy as hell without being cheap.

Essential Tracks: “Coming of Age”; “Nevermind”, “The Truth”

Pat
May 2, 2014 at 9:25 am

Well Said

SongofNow
May 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

We’re surprised by this review. We thought this was one of the best albums of the year so far. Many of the tracks on this album (“Ask Yourself”,”Best Friend”,”The Truth”) have a good chance of being the Song of Now at songofnow.com. It’s definitely an album that gets better with more spins.

Adam Lubicz
May 1, 2014 at 9:24 am

This album surprised me, I’m very glad they didn’t make torches 2. This sounds like a band as opposed to a mark foster solo outing like the first one did. This deserves a solid B

Nathan
May 1, 2014 at 9:10 am

Really though, this album was really bad. Torches was a wonderful album in my opinion, and they just couldn’t match the caliber of it on this album.

Mark
May 1, 2014 at 2:16 am

This isn’t a review of an album. It’s a personal attack on the writer of the album. That’s not music criticism, it’s lazy writing. Pitchfork, this ain’t.

Matt Melis
May 1, 2014 at 2:38 am

Thanks for reading. I’m curious why you see this as a personal attack.

All the best…

Patrick Sullivan
May 1, 2014 at 8:23 am

CoS writers love to bring preconceived notions into their reviews. Most of them are incapable of writing an honest review. Rather than actually reviewing the album they frame their reviews within their own narrow expectations. Not every album can be the next great thing, that’s only reserved for Kanye.

Jon
May 1, 2014 at 2:01 am

The review says B- but the rating is D+?

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