Foster the People’s new album Supermodel has a lot going for it. As a follow-up to the band’s 2011 breakout debut Torches, it inevitably tries to avoid being labeled a “sophomore slump” by deviating from what what earned the band such instant notoriety: quirky, memorable lyrics and electronic hooks that serve well as pop rock tunes with enough substance to be called indie. Songs like “Helena Beat,” “Houdini” and of course the acclaimed single “Pumped Up Kicks” forced their way into the mainstream consciousness by embracing what made MGMT’s first three singles such staples of the alternative radio scene: have an upbeat, electronic hook, a sing-a-long chorus, and just enough reverb to make the odd lyrics indecipherable to a general audience.
On Supermodel, Mark Foster and crew attempt to branch out from that success by asking “Are You What You Want to Be?” Yes, FTP are already disillusioned with the fame that took them only three years to obtain. And yet, Supermodel does a decent job of exploring themes of interpersonal relations and consumerism in the modern world. If only it didn’t sound so “meh”.
Let’s start with what they get right. Mark Foster said that the new album would be heavily influenced by bands like The Kinks and The Clash, and it shows. Mostly gone are the heavy, warm synths found on Torches, replaced by a solid rock sound that still manages to sound substantial. There are even subtle African influences in places, which make the percussion stand out in particular. Mark Foster’s vocal abilities have also received a slight upgrade. He shows off a mellow croon on “Fire Escape,” and teases a welcome angst on “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon”. He even goes into full ballad mode on the short interlude “The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones”, which is nice but ultimately unnecessary. Foster limits himself too much to the typical falsetto “oohs” and “do do doos” to really call this record an evolution. More like a slow crawl in the right direction.
This is where the bulk of Supermodel’s issues arise. Rather than taking a step forward musically, Foster the People have simply shuffled to the side. Songs are often jumbled and overly busy, lacking the focus of their previous efforts. “Nevermind” and “Goats In Trees” are immediately forgettable, while others like “Pseudologia Fantastica” balance on the cusp of brilliance without ever taking the plunge. True to concept, Supermodel focuses largely on the pitfalls of fame and living the #selfie life. And yet, few songs actually succeed in being meaningful and interesting at the same time. Ideas of media consumption, bad acid trips and self-discovery are floating around here somewhere, but end up being too generic and preachy to be of much interest. These songs desperately crave to be the kind of social commentary that last year’s Arcade Fire and Lorde records were doing with relative ease. “Coming of Age” just doesn’t mean much coming from a guy who wrote commercial jingles just a few years ago.
There are some solid songs on Supermodel. “Coming of Age” is a relatively tame alt-anthem, while “Pseudologia Fantastica” provides some decent thrills. The best song by far is “Best Friend,” which actually manages to groove pretty hard. One wonders what the album might have been if they had worked forward with that song’s charm in mind. Ultimately, Supermodel screams “rushed”. Few songs will have you coming back like “Pumped Up Kicks” did just two years ago. But really, the world is not lacking for bands like Foster the People. Empire of the Sun, Phoenix and Passion Pit would all gladly fill the hole left by MGMT’s early departure into psychedelic territory. In an age where fingers eagerly hover over the skip button, Foster the People could use some rest and a little peace of mind. And if you’re gonna pull a Kanye ego trip, you best have a Yeezus in your pocket.