Forever challenging, the Oxford fivesome’s second album reveals a band slipping comfortably into their obtuseness and paranoia
Pity [a]Foals[/a]. All they ever wanted was a steady supply of Rizlas and to play weird music. Unfortunately they wrote a couple of songs some kids enjoyed dancing to, but then had the temerity to follow them with an excellent, underrated debut that sounded nothing like [b]‘Hummer’[/b] and [b]‘Mathletics’[/b]. Then they decided one cult hero producer wasn’t the right fit and, understandably, looked elsewhere, but all anyone wanted to know was why they’d fucked off the guy from [a]TV On The Radio[/a]. Meanwhile, they were selling out huge venues – huge for a band who can legitimately cite Don bloody Caballero as an influence – making countless young feet dance and quietly slipping onto major label Warner, but only now does their music feel… comfortable. Not in the easy-listening sense, but [b]‘Total Life Forever’[/b] crawls and creeps like a tender portrait of their paranoid selves in the way that [b]‘Antidotes’[/b] always threatened to: it is nervous, intense and quite brilliant.
It pivots on the staggering [b]‘Spanish Sahara’[/b], by now familiar but still such a treat with its blossoming guitars and gently relentless momentum, and [b]‘Black Gold’[/b], hooked around a Mike Tyson quote and tripping acrobatically between the stuttering disco-punk of their past and something teasingly expansive. Either side lie the title track and single [b]‘This Orient’[/b], equally buoyed by [b]Yannis Philippakis[/b]’ sparse vocals (he’s singing smoothly rather than barking this time, which is perhaps the biggest single change) and a new-found sense of freedom that means they can flick around from the staccato rhythms of the former to the eye-wateringly bright pop of the latter and still sound like the same band. It’s that playfulness that makes [b]‘Total Life Forever’[/b] so much fun.
Witness [b]‘Miami’[/b], one of the most extroverted songs Foals have ever made. It is that rarest of beasts – a colossal pop song that is clever enough to appear dumb, being as it is as much of a genre-splicing mash-up of hip-hop and post-punk as anything [a]MIA[/a] could conceive. And [b]‘After Glow’[/b] has something of a woozy 6am comedown about it, spreading out over six minutes before curling up in a corner after a flurry of beatsy percussion. [b]‘Blue Blood’[/b] is the last remnant of that Afrobeat tag that has dogged them unnecessarily for years. All fundamentally different. All superbly consistent.
Thematically, [b]‘Total Life Forever’[/b] is isolated, cold and worried about what’s to come: [i]“I know a place where I can go when I’m low”[/i], hums the title track; [i]“Don’t forget everything we cared for”[/i], pleads [b]‘After Glow’[/b]; [b]‘Black Gold’[/b] warns [i]“the future’s not what it used to be”[/i]. Emotions are hinted at and almost always obscured in a thick mist of imagery; whole songs turn on a sixpence. In the wrong hands such a wilfully oblique tone would be frustrating – further ammunition for the imagination-starved minceheads who claim [a]Foals[/a] are too clinical to be worthy of love – but throughout the album the neuroses of its fathers are presented not only unflinchingly but in a winningly human way. If you’re reading this and are the parent of any particular Foal, phone them. Offer a hug. Sounds like they need it.
Sure, [b]‘Total Life Forever’[/b] is flawed – it takes half a dozen listens before the quality of it really sinks in, and is so all over the place that only the most devoted won’t find it initially maddening. But throughout is a braveness and naive sense of wonder (through the perfect murk of Luke ‘Clor’ Smith’s production shines the will of a band who want to keep pressing buttons until something magical happens) that confirms what [b]‘Antidotes’[/b] suggested: that [a]Foals[/a] will never be anything other than [a]Foals[/a], and if we follow them into the fog then, well, visions of startling clarity await.
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Click here to get your copy of Foals’ ‘Total Life Forever’ from the Rough Trade shop