“They say that you have your whole life to write your first record and nine months to write your second – it’s true!” Foster the People frontman Mark Foster knows better than most, having been tasked with following up the band’s wildly successful 2011 debut album Torches, which earned praise from industry figures from Elton John to U2.
Foster the People’s second album, Supermodel, was released in March last year and it has divided expectant fans and critics alike. The band (also comprising drummer Mark Pontius and bassist Cubbie Fink) have clearly gone down a different route with this record; indeed, Foster says, “One of the things that was important to us was making a record that, I guess, was more organic – Torches was pretty synthetic.” The debut album’s array of solid, well-polished electronic tracks drew acclaim, with “Pumped Up Kicks” and “Houdini” perhaps justifiably grabbing the spotlight.
That album eventually went platinum in Australia and Canada, and gold in four countries including the US. Fittingly, Supermodel has an equally international flavour, having been produced on three continents. Much of the writing and what Foster calls the record’s “aesthetic intensity” was conceived in Morocco; the bulk of the album was recorded in Los Angeles, and finishing touches to the vocals were added in London.
However, this time around the feel of the record is somewhat different, as its first single, “Coming of Age”, would lead you to believe. Many of the tracks on Supermodel resulted from the band “getting lost in rabbit trails and experimenting”. And experimental is exactly how some of the songs feel, none more so than the 30-second, lyric-less “The Angelic Welcome of Mr Jones” or the millennial, new-age “Pseudologia Fantastica”.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the pretentious “The Angelic Welcome” is followed by arguably the album’s catchiest and most radio-friendly effort, “Best Friend”. Tucked in the middle of the track list, this seems to be Supermodel’s most upbeat moment, a reprieve from the darkly inviting lyrics found elsewhere (“We’ve been crying for a leader to speak like the old prophets/The blood of the forgotten wasn’t spilled without a purpose – or was it?” in the excellently-titled “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon”, for example).
It’s easy to see this album as an evolution from Torches when Foster’s songwriting is at his aloof, apocalyptic, quasi-political best. If this feels more depressing than their debut – and it does – that appears to be accidental: “A lot of my melodies tend to be hopeful. I think there’s a melancholy there too, but always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel,” he insisted in 2011.
But it’s that melancholy which makes this record worth listening to, makes it more than a lazy follow-up of the songwriting formula he stumbled upon while working as a “commercial jingle writer”. “Goats in Trees”, for instance, is as weird as the name suggests and as such unsuitable for radio – but it’s one of the best songs here for its smooth narrative and progression.
The album ends somewhat unusually, with the stripped-back “Fire Escape”, a love letter to Los Angeles, where Foster moved as a teenager to pursue his dream of a career in a music. For all the references to prophets and blood that precedes “Fire Escape”, its real-world grounding seems incongruous.
It does little to dispel the impression you get that Foster the People is essentially a one-man band, Foster himself putting everything together before calling his friends in to play the instruments he can’t, but this album suggests the band will be around for a while yet. As long as Foster isn’t bored of songwriting, to be precise.