Album Review: Foals – ‘Total Life Forever’ (Warner Bros)

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 ‘Hummer’ and ‘Mathletics’. 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 ‘Total Life Forever’ crawls and creeps like a tender portrait of their paranoid selves in the way that ‘Antidotes’ always threatened to: it is nervous, intense and quite brilliant.

It pivots on the staggering ‘Spanish Sahara’, by now familiar but still such a treat with its blossoming guitars and gently relentless momentum, and ‘Black Gold’, 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 ‘This Orient’, equally buoyed by Yannis Philippakis’ 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 ‘Total Life Forever’ so much fun.

Witness ‘Miami’, 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 ‘After Glow’ 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. ‘Blue Blood’ is the last remnant of that Afrobeat tag that has dogged them unnecessarily for years. All fundamentally different. All superbly consistent.

Thematically, ‘Total Life Forever’ is isolated, cold and worried about what’s to come: “I know a place where I can go when I’m low”, hums the title track; “Don’t forget everything we cared for”, pleads ‘After Glow’; ‘Black Gold’ warns “the future’s not what it used to be”. 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, ‘Total Life Forever’ 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 ‘Antidotes’ 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.

Rob Parker

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Click here to get your copy of Foals’ ‘Total Life Forever’ from the Rough Trade shop

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