Foster the People was one of 2011's surprise success stories. The indie pop trio's song "Pumped Up Kicks," which plumbs the disturbed depths of an unhinged student on the verge of a Columbine-style rampage, became the sixth-best-selling track of the year, moving 3.8 million units. The band's debut album, Torches—a slow burn if we've ever seen one—capitalized on that song's popularity, selling 3 million copies internationally and earning Grammy nominations in two categories (Best Alternative Album and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance).
Formed in 2009 by keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Mark Foster, the band features a dreamy, effervescent blend of synthesizers, drum loops and guitar hooks that defies easy definition. All Music Guide reviewer Matt Collar characterizes Foster the People's sound as "'80s synth-meets-'60s psych pop" and "electro-lite dance-pop that fits nicely next to such contemporaries as MGMT and Phoenix." Suffice it to say that the group's sound is something of a category buster—but definitely a catchy one.
Nailing down exactly what the band is trying to say on Torches' 10 tracks proves similarly slippery at times. Mark Foster says of the album, "We just want people to feel better about their lives," and a number of the songs here may very well accomplish that goal. Other tracks, however, come from a more melancholy or, in the case of "Kicks," dangerous point of view that aren't so eager to encourage listeners in their own struggles.
"Waste" optimistically says that every day offers a chance to change, to let go of the past and to awaken to new possibilities. It's written from the perspective of someone trying to help a struggling friend get unstuck in life: "How long, I say how long/Will you relive the things that are gone?/Oh yeah, I know the devil's on your back/But I know you can shake him off." The singer promises to stand by his friend and challenges him not to waste his days on self-pity.
"I Would Do Anything for You" delivers an earnest statement of love, commitment and sacrifice ("I don't know what the plan is/But you can share with me/'Cause I'll be listening to everything you say/I won't turn away/I'd do anything for you").
"Houdini" rightly observes, "Fear can make you compromise." The song admonishes us to focus on our abilities and choices instead of letting critics and naysayers sabotage our dreams. The subject of fear turns up again on "Warrant," where we hear, "Fear is a like a fake friend/It warms you up and takes you in/ … And fear is like your best friend/Manipulates and takes you in."
Mark Foster has said that he wanted "Pumped Up Kicks" to be a cautionary tale about school violence, however …
… it's a grim, realistic trip into the soul of a heartless school shooter that could also easily be heard as glorifying, not warning against, such horrifying choices. "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You better run, better run, outrun my gun," the chorus chimes. "You better run, better run, faster than my bullet."
The threat of violence turns up again on "Call It What You Want": "We've got nothing to lose/You better run and hide/Yeah, you've crossed the line/I've got a knife behind my back (just sayin')."
Elsewhere, two tracks mix desperation and hope. On "Helena Beat" we hear, "I took a sip of something poison, but I'll hold on tight/ … Slip and fall, I'm dodging calls, hug the prison I've been living in." "Life on the Nickel" seems to take us behind the eyes of a homeless person who's forced to "hustle" to survive. "Yet again, I'm hustling, hustling, hustling/But I can't seem to catch a dime." He laments, "My smokes have come and gone/I've been crazy/Been fed enough to not wind up dead/And I'm lonely/My eyes have been closed to the world/'Cause the world's got nothing for me." He also says, "I've got to write my family/And say, 'I'm calm and feeling warm.'"
Whether those two songs represent a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty read on life is definitely open to interpretation.
Foster the People generated lots of conversation with "Pumped Up Kicks." But apart from that controversy, there's not much here that strays too far outside the typical bounds of alt-rock subject matter. In other words, nice, feel-good songs with clear messages mingle with tracks trapped inside opaque meanings and a decidedly darker outlook on life.