As far as music of my teenage generation goes, Foals was at the heart of it. Between 2005 and 2011, my high school years, UK indie bands, including the Foals, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys, The Cribs, and countless others, played a role in my life that I imagine was similar to teens in the 60s or 70s listening to The Rolling Stones or The Who.
So, when the news came out that the Foals’ new album, What Went Down, was going to be released, a mix of emotions hit me – emotions that strike me nearly every time a nostalgic band decides to release a new album. First, I was pumped. I revisited the ‘dust-collecting’ digital collection of Foals classics deep within my library (which by the way, Antidotes is still just as great as I remembered). Then once those good vibes settled, the inescapable nerves showed up. Thoughts that maybe the Foals are on their way to releasing a passionless, lemon of an album, and that their shelf-life of creating great music had already past its expiry date (think Bloc Party’s 4th release and some of Coldplay’s latest releases). That particular thought lingered until I sat down and gave What Went Down a full listen. Even though filled with a mix of hype and nervousness, when that final track came to an end, I got to say, it was a pretty dang good experience. Sure, the album didn’t blow away my expectations, and I didn’t get as hyped as I hoped I would, but still, it’s a good quality release that definitely adds some value to the band’s discography.
A Brand New Sound, Both a Blessing and a Curse
One thing that the Foals definitely succeeded on with their latest LP, was starting off strong. Their very first song, which was their title track, What Went Down, is easily my favorite from the album. It caught me off guard, especially as I still had the lingering memory of my recent binge listening session just days prior. Instead of the electro-pop, synth-heavy, danceable music that I was familiar with, I heard a band that seemed angrier and darker, almost like they were releasing some pent-up emotions. It felt like a re-invention of the band’s style, a new sound that I’ve never heard from them, and was actually working. Though, one the introductory song came to an end, then the second, third, fourth started rolling through, I felt myself wanting to hear more of the first.
In my opinion, this is the biggest issue with the album, What Went Down – the band introduced a completely new sound, but barely experimented with it to see what they could create. Sure, you can hear that darker tone on Snake Oil, and there are glimpses of it on A Knife in the Ocean and Albatross, but otherwise, the rest of the album seemed to be either a throwback to a sound you hear on some of their past releases or lackluster, but still decent, sappy tracks. That lack of commitment to something new, re-defined, uncommon, is what stopped this album from being something special. Even with excellent singles sprinkled all throughout, a great album isn’t made by its singles, but by what you see when you view the whole as a single entity. In my opinion, What Went Down didn’t have that true identity and didn’t create that full-length adventure they had the potential to create.
So Much Goodness, But Still…
Now, getting past the hopes of an old school band (old school in the context of a 22 year old) releasing something exceptionally great, we are still left with some awesome Foals tunes. Mountain at My Gates, Birch Tree, Lonely Hunter and A Knife in the Ocean, I could see all of these tracks developing into major hits on the indie charts. It seems to me that what the album does best is offering up a bunch of songs that have the ability to stand on their own. None of the tracks (maybe besides Night Swimmers, which I really don’t like, but is probably a personal thing) really depend on or drag down the rest of tracks around them. For both Foals lovers and new listeners, they could hear any one of these tracks on the radio, on a playlist, on YouTube, or as a recommendation, and wonder to themselves whether that was the album’s single.
Still though, I can’t get past the feeling that the Foals played it safe. Although there are countless good, catchy, hummable songs on What Went Down, they didn’t give the album enough umph to take their music to another level. People who follow the Foals, ever since they released Antidotes or theHummer EP, know that the bands consistently produces great music. I can listen to each one of their albums, from start to end, with ease. Nonetheless, with so many good quality albums, expectations arise. Expectations to create special, reinvented, undefined, veteran music like Arctic Monkey’s AM orArcade Fire’s Reflektor. Foals didn’t reach those expectations, and as a result, a long-time Foals listener like myself may feel that empty feeling of enjoyment from their latest album. Maybe if What Went Down were their second or third full-length release, the unfortunate hype wouldn’t drag down the impact of their album as much, but sadly, that’s how it goes for veteran bands.
Nonetheless, if you love pop rock or indie rock, I recommend you give the album a listen, I’m sure you’ll see yourself hooked on a track or two.