“Foals Are Writing the Soundtrack to an Apocalypse”, declared the title of a New York Times review of their latest two-part album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost. Without launching into a full-fledged review of my own, which I am not qualified for, simply given my lack of experience writing about music, I’d just like to point out some highlights from listening to the first part of the album tonight.
One thing that struck me, listening to the album after reading that review, was how contemporary the lyrics were. I’d say that the lyrics are very intelligent, not just because they are good – and there are many gems – but because they adequately describe a certain cultural moment.
Philippakis wrote the lyrics for these new albums in a furious month and a half, almost entirely in pubs. He wanted the lyrics to pour out of him. He hoped to archive, naturally, “the insecurities and perils” of what it feels like to be alive today.
A few lyrics illustrate this point. The song, “Exit”, begins with these lines:
Now the sea eats the sky
But they say it’s a lie
There’s no birds left to fly
We’ll hide out
In an interview, Yannis points out the inspiration behind this song:
You read about these tech billionaires who are buying bunkers in New Zealand. The song is an MC Escher-like dystopian fantasy, except it’s quite close to being reality… All the post-millennial dread that everybody’s swimming in at the moment is very much present.
What these lyrics tie together are the immensity of the changes that climate change is likely to bring together with the anxieties of having to live underground, cut off from the sky. Hiding out seems to be the only way to survive, but it makes us less than human, an “upside-down” world. This anxiety, being tossed headfirst into a world that no longer seems to make sense, undergirds much of this album.
In “Syrups”, the lyrics paint a different, but equally bleak landscape:
And now the robots have made the rounds
Sand dunes filled up all our towns
The foxes howl and the creepers prowl around
The peeling wet bricks of London town
Foxes howl and the way men cower
Won’t you find a way for me somehow?
For me, this combination of “robots” and “dunes”, “foxes” and “creepers” cleverly and rightly shows the regression that we are facing – from robots making the rounds to sand dunes in the towns – from the technological hopes that we had cherished to the encroachment of bare nature into the urban enclaves that we had proudly thought sufficiently kept nature away. I’m reminded also of the photographs of Chernobyl decades after the explosion – trees and weeds grow in concrete buildings, animals – foxes especially, which resonates well with the lyrics above – start to roam once-occupied streets.
Sergei Chuzavkov / AP
One of the things that troubles me, however, is whether there is a disjunction between the style of music and the message that these lyrics communicate. Could the music distract from the lyrics? Is it so clear that the band has these concerns front and centre, or are these just attempts to be “relevant”, as the Amos Barshad seems to suggest in the New York Times?
Both the double album and the overtures to the climate crisis can also be seen another way: as a grander statement, a shot at a wider relevance.
But perhaps that concern is overblown. The fact is that these lyrics are not out of place. They aren’t completely dislocated from the album, which a lesser band might end up with, where the lyrics and themes are just slapped on because they are topical. The album goes deeper, there is a coherence between these themes and the music. How? Well, the answer is suggested by quoting the rest of the bridge from “Syrups”:
So let’s get dirt on an Oxford shirt
Throw a party so we won’t get hurt
See you frown through your evening gown
The music itself is a response to these anxieties, these problems that are thrown up by the lyrics. In “Sunday”, there’s this sense that drawing people together, friends, in the midst of a dying world is the only sensible solution:
Time has come and time is gone
Cities burn, we got youth to spend
And time to waste in love
To live again, my friend
Through the flames and through the fire
Cities burn, we don’t give a damn
‘Cause we got all our friends right here
We got youth to spend
“We’ve got youth to spend”, and the Foals’s music is one way to spend it. This certainly is a response to the looming crises that our generation faces. Is it the only response? Is it an entirely appropriate or sufficient response? Probably not. But as we continue to live in this era of foreboding, this age when we seem to have a lot but don’t seem to have enough all the time, this age when the “hedges are on fire” and we’re stuck in the same cycles over and over again, I’m glad to have a soundtrack to match these times.