Very shortly after their just-fine debut album, Antidotes, landed on these shores, the young Brits in Foals up and decided the record wasn’t any good. They said it wasn’t “insurmountable by any means,” and they publicly complained about TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek’s production, which for some people was the only reason to give Foals any thought. Too many times before, we’ve heard the “but this isn’t the album we wanted to make!” argument from bands who underperformed out of the gate, which is why Foals’ shtick feels so tired. But that’s also why it’s surprising that Foals’ sophomore album, Total Life Forever, is basically Antidotes 2.0: No Antibalas Horns. These guys apparently disliked how they sounded on their debut so much they decided to replicate it.
Because of that similarity, it feels like I’m reviewing Antidotes here, because the reasons why that album never completely connects are the same reasons that Total Life Forever doesn’t either. Lyrically, Foals are often cliché and direct (requests to go to someone’s arms, to come back, to “be there,” for example), but singer Yannis Philippakis, who clearly studied at the alter of Bono, is also sometimes hopelessly oblique and is often not saying anything at all (“Miami” has no references to the earth’s sweatiest city, and the phrase “total life forever” is unclear even after it gets shouted a bunch in the title track).
Foals still play with styles — they can veer between poppy math rock and rocky angular post-punk — and it still feels like they’re on the verge of a stylistic breakthrough that has yet to happen. For every sonic experiment like the vocal-sample built “This Orient,” there’s a sub Bloc Party-jack like “After Glow.” For every soaring, ready for ad placement jam like “Black Gold,” there’s a “Miami,” a song that lifts from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Snow Patrol in equally awful measure.
The one thing Foals did succeed in on Total Life Forever is removing any sense that they’re a Dave Sitek studio creation, because his formerly heavy sonic fingerprint is nowhere to be found here. But what that actually means is that horns from Sitek’s pals in Antibalas aren’t around, and the guitars don’t sound as much like they were computer programmed. Everything else is in its right place.
All in all, though, Total Life Forever is a slightly more assured record from Foals; this time out they sound like they’ve taken complete ownership of their music. They were originally called out for being a new version of the umpteen shimmery post-punk bands that came before them, but with Total Life Forever, Foals can now (mostly) be considered as an entity unto themselves.