UK scenesters, Foals, return this spring with Total Life Forever, the follow-up to their 2008 debut Antidotes. When I first heard the pre-released singles, I was at my friend Stew’s house and we were having a few drinks before going out somewhere. He played “Spanish Sahara” for me, and I became immediately irate, screaming: “Coldplay! Coldplay! No!” and then I smashed a beer bottle on his living room floor. Stew told me to relax and then played the second single “This Orient” for me. I leapt from the couch, punched Stew in the face, screamed “Bloc Party! Bloc Party! God, no!” and then promptly passed out on the floor in disappointment. When I came to, it all seemed like a bad dream. Foals is a band I hold in high regard, and I anticipated their new release to be a different beast entirely. Why would a band with so much raw energy and post-rock infectiousness, turn to seemingly less dynamic songwriting and more obvious influences?
Ahh, the curse of the sophomore album. Before beginning this review I listened to every song Foals have released to date, and I noticed a steady shift and softening of their sound from their earliest EP’s, Hummer and Try This On Your Piano, to Total Life Forever. And so, it does in fact seem that this ‘softer’ version of the young band is a natural progression, slowly developing over the last four years. However, at the same time, I can’t help but feel it all seems a bit calculated — an attempt to widen their fan base, a desire to get BIG, and not just indie rock big, but (ahem) Coldplay big. There is a definite Parachutes-era Coldplay feel to this album. And this clever calculatedness can be seen all the way down to the album cover, which evokes one of the biggest albums of the last twenty years (I’ll let you guess which one).
Yet, although I was initially disappointed with the early singles, upon listening to them within the context of the entire album, I discovered that Total Life Forever is solid, and the band’s progression, whether calculated or not, has them writing their finest songs to date.
After the release of Antidotes, the band began immediately dismissing it as “flawed” and not a fair representation of their overall aesthetic. For me, I found their debut a great album, with a tight rhythm section, and excellent kicks and hooks. However, critical reception for the album was mixed, and I can’t help but think this may be one reason for their public dismissal of Antidotes, and their desire to open up their music to a larger audience. I mean, we have a group of guys who dropped out of Oxford University to become rock stars, and perhaps when Antidotes didn’t blow up the way they had hoped, they decided they had to go bigger, friendlier, with less weird time changes and guitar tapping chord progressions . . . we gotta prove to our friends and family that dropping out of college really was the right decision. Believe me Mum, we’re still gonna make it!
I feel like I had to note this, but with that said, the songs on Total Life Forever are very well written, emotional, and have great guitar work and changes. The sound is softened from their earlier releases, but somehow because of this, the album packs more of a punch. The first four tracks start the album off at a great pace, mixing moments reminiscent of Talking Heads with the earlier Foals sound to great effect. Title track “Total Life Forever”, surprisingly lifts its opening lyrics from “Into Your Arms” by The Lemonheads, as if they’re trying to rewrite the 90’s ballad for the next generation, giving it a funkier punch and vibe.
“Black Gold”, on the other hand, stands out as truly their own, and features an amazing change halfway through the song, with a great build-up and kick, coupled with Yannis Philippakis singing: “Now that spring is finally here / in your hollow heart, your hollow heart!” The song totally works and is a perfect example of their new found “maturity” when it comes to composition. After “Black Gold”, the album slows down with the 7-minute “Spanish Sahara”, and as I said earlier, the quiet track works well as a midpoint within the album. Highlights on the flipside are “Alabaster” and “2 Trees”, which are slow burners that resonate well, and recall to mind the best moments of Coldplay’s debut, and quieter Bloc Party tracks, while at the same time, still sound very much like Foals — just at a clipped pace.
In the end, I dig Total Life Forever. I have returned to it many times, and find it packs an emotional punch, while still retaining the inherent groove of a good rock album. Although, it is not where I expected their sound to go, I still hope it gains them the fan base they seem to want so badly, but also hope in the end, that they’re still doing it all for one thing: the music.