Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
There is a fine line that a musician walks when he also chooses to write about his fellow musicians’ work, so I usually try to keep on the sunny side and find records that make Me the Listener sit up and pay attention. I prefer reacting to music in a positive way and don’t want to dwell on when “it just don’t move me, man.” I also feel that people have given me that kind of courtesy toward my own professional body of work.
So it gives me a certain amount of unease to say I don’t really like the new Foster the People album, Supermodel.
The story of Foster the People is an example of the new business model musicians must adopt in order to have a hope of making a living at playing. The band’s leader Mark Foster must have found his work at the Los Angeles advertising jingle house Mophonics rewarding on a couple of levels — including figuring out what kind of music tends to becomes successful — and the experience seems to have had a big influence on the material on Supermodel. The result is an album’s worth of inorganic, commercially erected melodies that lack allure and heart.
The science of hit records in 2014 is a refined synchronization of so much more than the song, reaching deep into realms of commerce and business. That takes the onus off having to be much more than a practical exercise. Seemingly influenced by demographic research to the degree that the songwriting is more like design and construction, at the price of any appreciable soul, Foster the People have built a polished beast of an album.
Supermodel is rife with atmospheric synthesizer doodles and post-Police ornate drum patterns, all collected into four- and five-minute bursts, often with arty titles like “Pseudologia Fanstastica” or “A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon.” There are guitars that pop up occasionally to abet the keyboard busywork, but it all takes on the aural equivalent of chrome via the production values — it’s shiny enough to snort lines off of.
There are so many melodies and little rhythmic hooks, so much movement, that suggest that there might be more to enjoy than I could actually find on Supermodel. The sophisticated chords in “Ask Yourself” drive the guitars through the motions with a competitive and modern beat, but the song is bereft of any naturalness and feels coldly crafted. “Coming of Age” wants to be an anthem but struggles with too little of a memorable chorus, even with its Beach Boy nod — one of several on this collection. There is a dearth of endearing qualities about these songs overall. Foster’s ingenuity as a songwriter shows a lot of unnatural dexterity, and there’s no denying that what he does satisfies a lot of the qualifications for being considered a fine songwriter. But even though he can synthesize Brazilian pop chords in a song like “Nevermind,” it still leaves a strange, disquieting aftertaste. When the last song “Fire Escape” finally arrives, its acoustic simplicity can’t shake the feeling that it’s come along too late; then the satiny production devours the song whole.
Understandably, natural change has come over popular music, and it has evolved into a streamlined vision of a future into which FTP fits with dismaying perfection. Listeners today demand different things of their music from what their elders did; it’s a new day, people want to dance, they want their music’s rough edges sanded down, retuned, polished and plated. They want it to sound like something they’ve heard before and are not threatened by the sound of. So the same lack of earthiness and grit I find suspect and distancing is actually what appeals to a wider audience, a little like the idea of the Brazilian wax.
I’m disappointed because I had really wanted to love this band and Supermodel but was kept at arm’s length by its insincere vibe and the notion that clever marketing can supplant the necessity for really great songs. I certainly wish the band the best of success. I’m certain they’re nice people, but this album leaves me cold and disturbed. There will no doubt be millions of people who do love all of these songs in whatever television program or advertisement they hear them playing in.