Foster the People: Sacred Hearts Club

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The unhurried lope of “Pumped Up Kicks” ran counter to Mark Foster’s rapid ascent. After graduating high school in northern Ohio, he moved to Los Angeles, eventually landing a job with the commercial-music concern Mophonics. It was in Mophonics’ studio that Foster tracked “Pumped Up Kicks.” Though he had songwriting partners in drummer Mark Pontius and former bassist Cubbie Fink, “Kicks” was Foster’s work alone: the version that hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 was his original demo. When Foster the People played the 2012 Grammy Awards—wearing matching striped Gant popovers for a Beach Boys anniversary segment—they performed “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” another pop smash written by a jingle writer/LA transplant.

A bout of writer’s block spurred Foster to travel; his final stop was Morocco, where he spent eight days with super-producer Paul Epworth, who worked on the band’s debut. The writing session led to 2014’s Supermodel, largely a lateral move. There were more indie-pop vocals massed like fog-shrouded battle formations; more ruthless refrains; and another bass-led, deceptively upbeat single. Afrobeat-jacking opener aside, the change was thematic. “You want more and ambition’s taking its toll on you,” Foster sang on “Ask Yourself.” The band, as you’d expect, grappled with materialism. “I’m bored of the game and too tired to rage,” went the bridge of “Coming of Age,” the album’s riff-riddled highlight. Unlike Columbia stablemates MGMT—to whom Foster and company have frequently been compared—Foster the People had become shepherds of a sound, not shamans.

On their third album, they’re still steering their flock through the smoke. In a teaser video released last month, Foster spoke of the album as being built from the beat up and influenced by ’60s psychedelia. In theory, this implies a pivot to MGMT’s template. In reality, Sacred Hearts Club splits the difference between the bookending acts on that Grammys tribute: Maroon 5 and the Beach Boys. Pontius’ boom-bap anchors the angsty one-two opening: “Pay the Man” threads a pitched-up vocal scramble into Foster’s falling-teeth fever dream, while the anthemic, electro-pop “Doing It for the Money” spends its verses in a fighter’s stance, shifting weight from one foot to another, waiting for the bell.

This focus on the beat leads directly to regrettable pop-rap cadences. “Loyal Like Sid & Nancy”—with its clap-heavy 808 coursing underneath—is an inscrutable data dump, with references ranging from sort of cute (“ghosting like I’m Daniel Johnston”) to ill-advised (“got my hands up in the air/I’m saying ‘I can’t breathe’”) to downright horrifying (“lock our voices in the oven/like Sylvia at home”). Despite the title, “Harden the Paint” owes more to Just Blaze than Lex Luger, as smeared synth hits give way to Foster’s sprechgesang (“I’m just floating with my hands up/All street and gold dust”). A lovely chromatic vocal counterpoint enjoins his lover, who we’re led to believe, does not play for the Houston Rockets.

But Foster’s first love was the Beach Boys, and he pays homage to them yet again on Sacred Hearts Club. On SupermodeI, it was the choral “The Angelic Welcome of Mr. Jones.” Here, it’s “Time to Get Closer,” a 58-second, full-band stroll through the surf. Their fullest tribute is the daydreamy “Static Space Lover,” a duet with singer and actress Jena Malone: Foster the People stuff the pre-chorus with sleigh bells and curlicue harmonies, then build the bridge around a piano line, leading to something like trap beats meets Pet Sounds.

Whether these developments bring more chart success is an open question. New co-writers (K’naan, Aftermath signee Justus, Ryan Tedder) exacerbate Foster’s tendency to sketch around his point. His gift, as his Mophonics bio once read, is writing “compositions… [that] won’t let you forget them.” For hits like “Helena Beat” or “Coming of Age,” this implies craft. For stretches of Sacred Hearts Club, it’s persistence, as Foster’s existential couplets become more like carnival barking through the production’s thick haze. In a sense, Foster the People already belong to another age. The week before “Pumped Up Kicks” entered the pop Top 50, Spotify debuted in America. The streaming service didn’t help the song—Spotify plays weren’t figured into Billboard’s formula until 2012, by which point “Kicks” had crossed three million paid downloads. But if you plug their name into the search bar, you can find a version of ”Pumped Up Kicks” on an official playlist titled ”Oldies but Goodies.”

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