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 seriousness, and 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”