It’s fair to say that Foals’ second album is a bit of a grower, but it’s clear to me that Total Life Forever has joined the ranks of those records jostling for ‘album of the year’ status. And on top of that, I would propose that it is not just a departure, but a significant leap forward for the band. Foals were previously renowned for their shouty, spiky, math-rock influenced, dancefloor-friendly tunes – and there’s not really anything that fits that description here. Instead, what Foals have created here is a record that, for the most part, is dark, atmospheric, and even beautiful in places – and I’d argue that this is significant a stylistic change as The Horrors displayed on last year’s Primary Colours.
It all hinges on the record’s centre-point, ‘Spanish Sahara’ – and if Total Life Forever is indeed this year’s Primary Colours, then this is Foals’ ‘Sea Within A Sea’. Beginning with little more than the sound of the sea lapping against the shore and sparsely strummed guitar, it slowly, meticulously builds itself into a swirling spiral of sound – with Yannis’ vocals providing a haunting overtone throughout. It’s akin to seeing a wave coming over the horizon and watching it get closer and closer, hearing it get louder and louder, until it finally hits you – and then recedes back into the ocean, leaving you lying, dazed and drenched on the shore.
While ‘Spanish Sahara’ is one of the most beautiful tracks on the record, it’s also indicative of the bleakness that runs through Total Life Forever. See, for example, ‘Afterglow’: is its chorus of “Get up/go and find everyone you care for/for they/won’t be there to see you tomorrow” a threat, or merely a crushing realisation? Either way, it’s certainly indicates a much darker tone than on Antidotes. ‘Alabaster’ hammers the point home, not only with its expansive, echoing sound, but also its lyrics – you wouldn’t find a line like “She’s up in the sky and the sky is on fire/she set the whole neighbourhood to light” on Antidotes, that’s for sure. Not that I mean to discredit their debut at all – it’s a great record in its own right – but the difference in tone is very much noticeable.
Even the more upbeat moments have an undercurrent of sadness to them – even though it’s probably the closest Foals come to sounding like their old selves, ‘This Orient’s chorus of “It’s your heart/that gives me this western feeling” seems to convey a weight of uncertainty. Even the funky, feel-good vibes of ‘Miami’ are undercut with the same feeling, with the question in its chorus sounding more genuine than rhetorical.
“You, my dear, should fear what lies below,” sings Yannis forebodingly on album-closer ‘What Remains’ – and while that may or may not be the case, there’s nothing here to suggest that Foals should fear what lies *ahead*. Total Life Forever is an accomplished, dynamic progression of the band’s sound, and while it may not have the instantly catchy dancefloor-fillers of their debut, it feels more complete as a body of work. It’s the kind of record that takes a little while to get under your skin, but you should definitely give it the chance – it’s more than worth the time and effort.