What's harder than making America dance to a song that's ostensibly about a school shooting? Figuring out how to follow that out-of-nowhere success, of course. With the 2010 single "Pumped Up Kicks," Foster the People mastermind Mark Foster proved he could do the former, and three years on from the album "Torches," the former jingle writer returns to show the world that his breakout success was no fluke.
With a melody as catchy as the one in "Pumped Up Kicks," it was easy for listeners to forgo a proper lyrical dissection. This time out, however, fans will have a harder time ignoring Foster's words. In interviews, he's described Foster the People's sophomore album "Supermodel" as an "angry," guitar-based record about capitalist greed. Having recorded the album in studios from Morocco to Malibu, he's cited the Clash, David Bowie, and even West African music as his influences.
The good news: Foster has neither gone punk nor embarked on a world music odyssey, and while there are touches of righteous anger and non-Western beats, "Supermodel" is mostly an introspective rock album — a dimmed-down "Torches" told from the perspective of a guy who's toured himself ragged and emerged with newfound perspective. Foster is lost and looking for something to believe in, but he's not so far gone that he's forgotten what got him here. With "Supermodel," his goal is not to make you like him, but rather to give you a sense of what it's like to be him. He pulls it off, and he throws in plenty of hooks along the way.
Which "Supermodel" songs strike the right balance between dour introspection and dance-pop brilliance? Scroll down to read our track-by-track review of Foster the People's latest full-length.
1. Are You What You Want to Be?: Sessions for "Supermodel" began in Morocco, so it's fitting that Foster opens with the disc's most African-sounding track. Still, this is pop music, and when the chorus rolls around, Foster can't help but take his existential questioning to arena-rock levels.
2. Ask Yourself: Over acoustic guitar and fuzzy synth bass, Foster offers a defense of his rock 'n' roll lifestyle. "Ambition's not a crime," he explains, so long as you're chasing the right kind of dreams. Whoever he's singing to is "coughing blood" and feeling unfulfilled, and if Foster has reason to gloat, he sounds concerned, not spiteful.
3. Coming of Age
The final tune Foster recorded for the album was an obvious pick for the first single. This one's all about the crazy couple of years the band has had, and yet it's got the same light touch as the catchiest "Torches" cuts.
4. Nevermind: Title notwithstanding, this mid-tempo mix of acoustic guitar and bumping drums is no Nirvana homage. It's too hopeful for that, and even in a "post-modernist" world, where it's "hard to know the truth," Foster is certain the person he's singing to — perhaps himself — will find peace in the end.
5. Pseudologia Fantastica
One influence Foster neglected to mention in the pre-release interviews: My Bloody Valentine. That cosmic, oscillating, mega-distorted guitar tone is pure Kevin Shields, while the lyrics are in keeping with the spirit of the previous track: "You've got to get back up and face your demons / Don't ever be afraid of starting over."
6. The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones: A 30-second psych-gospel vocal interlude straight out of Brian Wilson's "Smile."
7. Best Friend
Had Foster wanted to trick people into thinking he'd created "Torches II," this would have been a great lead single. Like "Pumped Up Kicks," "Best Friend's"dark lyrics — all about your buddies being hooked on drugs — don't stand a chance against the tag-team combo of the beat and melody.
8. A Beginner's Guide to Destroying the Moon: This is Foster the People at their grungiest, and while there's still a pretty piano break in the middle, the band makes a valiant attempt at righteous sloganeering: "You'll never be whole / until you lose control / and think freely to smash the wall of apathy." There's that Clash influence Foster was talking about.
9. Goats In Trees: This acoustic jam is the one Foster should have named after a Nirvana album. "I'm on the outside, and I'm falling apart," he sings, his falsetto lovely, despite his apparent exhaustion. The animal noises during the fadeout underscore his descent into madness — unless he's just seeking solace at the zoo.
10. The Truth: Speaking of being tired, Foster sounds wiped on this one, particularly during the verses, where the keyboards throb like the fluorescent lights in a crummy psych ward. But as so often happens on "Supermodel," the chorus brings renewal: "There's a hope for the whole / I can promise you now."
11. Fire Escape: Foster ends with yet another testament to being older and wiser, this one a gentle acoustic ballad about young L.A. street urchins. As much as he wants to rescue them (he is, as after all, "a fire escape" whose "heart pumps that old red paint"), he knows that he can't.