Album Review: Foals, ‘What Went Down’
The fourth album by English rock quintet Foals was recorded in the same village in Provence where Vincent Van Gogh was famously committed to a psychiatric ward for cutting off his own ear. By playing-up this fact, the band's press team is clearly trying to imply a correlation between Foals' music and the link between inspiration and madness. From the listener's perspective, though, there's nothing particularly tortured or even edgy that comes across when listening to What Went Down.
Foals occupy roughly the same musical and emotional space as Coldplay did in the early 2000s. Which is to say that Foals' smooth, overtly big-budget production values ultimately make a for a rather safe experience regardless of how rousing its subject matter might be for you. Sure, frontman Yannis Philippakis hints at vaguely unsettling subject matter when he sings, "When I see a man, I see a liar" on the album-opening title track. According to the official press release, Philippakis was "thinking a lot about masculinity, but also about being an animal, being violent and primal."
Fair enough. But when Philippakis sings "Don't step to me, kid, you'll never be found / 'cuz while you were sleeping, I took over your town" it makes you wonder what his idea of "primal" really means. Many artists mine the contrast between disturbing subject matter and approachable music, but listening to What Went Down one gets the impression that Foals fancy themselves as dour people weighed-down by their troubles. From the outside, though, they look like an overly serious bunch who nearly sink their own material under the weight of its exaggerated earnestness.
The band went into recording the album straight from touring -- always a prudent choice, but one that shows here only in subtle ways. None of the fire that Philippakis says the band showed onstage translates to the music. Thankfully, fire isn't what's called for here. Foals manage to craft rich, absorbing songs that obscure Philippakis' attempts to force listeners into a dark night of the soul that wouldn't match the sonic vibe even if he were successful. Producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + the Machine) wisely treats this music for what it is: mildly-spiced, contemplative rock that comes off as most dignified when it stays true to its nature.
Two separate songs on What Went Down, for example, touch down in a similar headspace as Gary Jules' famous cover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World." Which is not to say that the band doesn't mix it up. Krautrock influences pop up on the title track and "Snake Oil," while the percussion, guitar, and piano parts on "Albatross" recall the Police and Duran Duran at their most atmospheric. Clearly Foals have become adept at incorporating outside elements into its formula. Making music this palatable is nowhere near as easy as What Went Down makes it look.