Mark Foster's ethereal falsetto fueled his alt-rock trio's dreamily disturbing 2011 hit "Pumped Up Kicks," a cheery-sounding song plumbing the dreary depths of a would-be school shooter's unbalanced mind. The song reached the upper echelons of Billboard's Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 3 and putting Foster the People on the map as a band willing to explore serious subject matter. (Maybe too serious since even the likes of MTVU censored the track.)
Three years later, Foster and his bandmates Cubbie Fink (who's married to CCM superstar Rebecca St. James) and Mark Pontius are back with another thought-provoking effort, Supermodel. This time around, Foster says trips to North Africa and the Middle East challenged him to reflect on the excesses of American culture.
"[Supermodel is] really about, I guess, the difference between the culture that we live in in L.A. and looking at the rest of the world and seeing how other people live with the focus on kind of just community, communication, real connections, social media and how social media is affecting our culture now," Foster recently told The Salt Lake City Tribune. "I think it's looking at isolation in the U.S. and that being something that's kind of growing, and comparing that to other cultures that are really very in tune with how people have been living for thousands of years."
Wading into deep water pretty quickly, "Are You What You Want to Be?" touches on poverty, homelessness, prostitution, justice and war, all in the context of the titular question. Foster talks of his tortured response to a begging woman on the streets of Paris, singing, "A young one dripping make-up put her hands out to holla/And I gave her what I got, but couldn't handle her broken heart." A similar construction describes his conversation with a prostitute: "The young one dripping make-up lift her leg up to holla/Well, I told her what she's got should be protected in the arms of love." The song talks of longing for meaning and answers amid such tough situations even as Foster admits questions like these "make me want to duck for cover." Then he says, "These things ask the biggest question to me/And it's, Are you what you want to be?" He admits that others might not understand where he's coming from ("Well, I'm afraid of saying too much and ending a martyr"), then adds, "Be even more so I'm afraid to face God and say I was a coward."
"Ask Yourself" says material things aren't going to satisfy our internal hunger: "Well, I've found the more I want the less I've got/Is this the life you've been waiting for/Or are you hoping that you'll be where you want with a little more?" Then this somewhat graphic line seems obliquely connected to the song's critique of consumerism: "You're coughing blood again/I know because I clean up the mess every now and then."
"I will calm you in the storm," reads "Nevermind," a track suggesting that we can still flourish amid brokenness ("Life can bloom when something breaks"). The song also alludes to the struggle of holding absolute beliefs in a culture that rejects them ("Yeah, it's hard to know the truth/In this postmodernist view/Where absolutes are seen as relics/And laughed out of the room"). Lines that follow could be heard as a prayer: "And I'm scared to say your name/I've cried wolf so many times/'Cause I'm afraid of what you'd want from me/How will you find me through the gray?/'Cause my mind's a minefield of the wretched."
"Pseudologia Fantastica" includes severe (yet seemingly apropos) survival imagery ("Don't be afraid of the knife/Sometimes you have to cut the limb to survive") and a similar allusion to warfare ("Are you sharpening your sword? Well, you'll bleed out anyway) while grappling with broken promises. Then it affirms, "You got to get back up and face your demons/Don't ever be afraid of starting over." "Best Friend" finds a compassionate man trying to help a drug-addled friend kick his addiction. "A Beginner's Guide to Destroying the Moon" plumbs disappointment and concludes that relinquishment (perhaps to God?) and serving others offer the only real path to personal wholeness. It also challenges those who live only for indulgence with, "And stop drinking the wine that's been dripping/From the lips of the gluttons, and envying their bloody teeth."
"Goats in Trees" is a complicated song that seems to be about internal spiritual struggle in the face of betrayal and confusion: "I buried all the guilt here with my youth/And I'm on the outside of this/And it's war on the inside/That's a lie." Lines taken in isolation sound somewhat ominous ("I feel the change in the rising tide, and blood is in the room"), but it ultimately rushes toward rescue ("No one can tell me they're not afraid/Of the freedom of deliverance").
Honesty, hope, integrity and absolutes infiltrate "The Truth," with Foster insisting, "There is a truth, there is a light if you'd follow me there/I've been searching for the directions and/I'm convinced the world doesn't know what it needs/There is a hope for the hopeless, I can promise you that." He observes, "The world is so broken/ … I never thought I'd be here/A blinding call to prayer/Has touched my feet/Like the call of the prophets/ … There is a truth, I can promise you that/ … The truth stands in the end/While you're deciding what to do."
"Fire Escape" concludes with another stirring call for change: "Sit out on Lexington and Vine/And all the pimps and prostitutes wave you down at stopping signs/Save yourself, save yourself, yourself/ … Los Angeles, I've been waiting for you/To pick yourself up and change/The city you've made, this ocean and sand/Is founded by liars and self-made men."
"Goats in Trees" references smoking ("I'll listen to you if you want me to/But you'll have to share a smoke") and includes the album's sole profanity ("I clawed and fought like h‑‑‑").
Prophetic isn't a word I trot out very often to describe a rock 'n' roll band's lyrical stance. But I think it's exactly the right word to describe what Foster the People is doing on Supermodel. Over and over, Foster bluntly and unapologetically insists that materialism isn't the answer to what ails us.
And though he never comes right out and articulates exactly what he believes, he does seem to subscribe to absolute truths that don't shift with the ever-changing cultural winds. And from those absolutes flow virtues such as honesty, integrity, humility and perseverance—as well as a plea for prayer.
So can a pop song be too serious for its own good? Absolutely. But while there's intensity and grit here, there's far more substance in this provocative and challenging album.