Three years ago, Foster the People scored a smash single by being carpetbaggers of cool. “Pumped Up Kicks” borrowed the affects of that era’s rising hipster middlebrow – Animal Collective‘s dreamy nostalgia, Vampire Weekend’s taut melodies and the reverb-y textures of the then-trendy chillwave subgenre – and combined them with the beaming melodies of singer Mark Foster, whose day job was literally writing jingles for Honey Bunches of Oats.
So it’s not exactly shocking that there’s barely an original thought on their second album. “Ask Yourself” is Flaming Lips with no conviction; “Nevermind” is Radiohead‘s “Paranoid Android” with no ambition; “Fire Escape” is Bon Iver with no campfire warmth. Foster still has the semiclever trick of sneaking dark lyrics into giddy pop – “Pumped Up Kicks” was actually about a school shooting, and here he talks about “the war machine,” death and more. Highlights like “Best Friend” and “Are You What You Want to Be,” meanwhile, could have anchored an album that looked back to the mid-Eighties moment when stiff, white singers toyed with black pop (think David Bowie‘s Let’s Dance or Talking Heads‘ Naked). Instead, we get a boatload of halfhearted na-na-na-na-na-nas and doo-doodoo-doodoodoos. The default mode here is a soupy power mumble: Passion Pit without the passion, Imagine Dragons without imagination.