British indie pop artist Foxes is no stranger to iconic singles: Youth and Body Talk are veritable earworms, each benefiting from clever songwriting and a production quality that elevate them beyond standard “Top 40” pop tunes. “Youth” has seen a stunning remix by Adventure Club, while “Let Go For Tonight” has received the treatment from our favorite drum’n’bass act, High Contrast. The singer collaborated with London-based Rudimental and even appeared on a Doctor Who episode. With her latest album, “The Kick,” Allen has delivered a synth-pop masterpiece, a throwback to (more) carefree days that manages to surprise at every turn and doubles down on getting you to move your feet – whether it’s in your bedroom or a mesmerizing, mirror-ball powered dance floor.
The album opener, “Sister Ray” was our third favorite track of 2021, directly referencing The Velvet Underground’s seminal “Sister Ray,” a song which was also preserved in its 40-minute, jam-session form. Allen talks about her single as “describing the most debauched night you could ever imagine but in its spirit, it’s a celebration of the people you can have those indescribable times with. I wanted to encapsulate that energy in a song so I could imagine that feeling forever.” Right from the start, the lyrics surprise with their careful arrangement (“We could make tonight/ One of those Sister Ray kinda nights / It’s your love, it’s mythical, a ritual/ Moving like a knife/ It’s close enough, it’s dangerous / Gemini, it’s your touch that’s got me“), and Allen with her rhythmic vocal delivery. The dual, arpeggiated synth coupled with the steady, 4/4 beat make it one of the most complex song in the artist’s toolbelt (and merging Zodiac signs with the feeling of pure bliss makes for a track almost designed for this website).
The titular song, “The Kick” mixes said kicks with claps, delivering more intuitive wordplays (“the beat within the beat within a heartbeat“). Perhaps referencing the reality of the pandemic era the album was recorded in, the lyrics speak of “trying to make heaven/ In a world that is cold and lost all feeling“. The song’s nature is a motivational one, but its danceable DNA makes you quickly forget that – the vocals (sometimes subtly manipulated, Imogen Heap-style) are often another instrument on “The Kick”, masking powerful lyrics.
“Growing On Me” was initially our one sore spot of the album, but even this track managed to ultimately make an impression. The lyrics describe the apprehension one might experience when starting a new relationship after being “buried” in a previous one. Once more, the vocal delivery is astonishing, and the interlude at the 2:20 mark unleashes a powerful release of energy, shimmering synths joining more organic beats.
At this point, the album sounds a lot like the best ’80s throwback of the year, and there really is no misstep in the whole construction. Even though we risk being redundant in mentioning how clever the “potential/essential” rhyme sounds on “Potential,” or how closely the production quality emulates the messy feel of an entire era, it’s worth making a side note on what makes ’80s-sounding music so special. In an eloquent explanation, the cmuse website refers to “a bleak, machine-like intensity that sets the tone, (…) the familiar sounds of looped drum-machines, synths, and bouncing bass lines, all topped with dry, sullen vocals, (…) the bleakness of the political situation mirrored in the song” and concludes that “even with this dark undercurrent, the music, full of hooks and driven beats, invites repeated listening.” On this album, Louisa Allen manages to take every adjective from the statement above and conceptualizes a nostalgia-driven, far away galaxy, which she often peers at through a modern telescope.
“Dance Magic” invites string synths to the party and makes another clever word connection, while its syncopated beat together with the chorus conjure up the feel of an R&B song (one can almost visualize its vibrant choreography). The themes of escape and losing oneself in a world of emotion permeate each tune, an echo of how things used to be, and hopefully a world that we haven’t entirely left behind.
“Body Suit” is the major surprise, the album coming to a halt and a late-night, saxophone-powered, intimate-dance-feel of a song taking over. The sax solo and licks are utterly amazing, the velvet-like vocals making this one of the most texture-filled tracks on the album. The last twenty seconds become pure, overwhelming emotion, marking a shift in the album’s M.O: one in which complex instrumentation almost entirely replaces the powerful lyrics and vocal delivery, delivering the home run on the production front. (We imagine this particular decision was a fortuitous one: at some point, you need the bliss to entirely replace any cerebral notion in order for the magic to work, and Allen is aware of this on “The Kick,” knowing when to make the switch.) From this track onwards, the album doubles down on the production quality and delicious pop hooks, freeing your feet of any awkwardness. Feeling universal, “Body Suit” will probably remind everyone of the high points of high-school dances.
You can feel the album’s shift on “Absolute”, a song which succinctly captures three decades of pop music, and “Two Kinds Of Silence,” one of two tracks that really sound like post-“Closer” Tegan and Sara (the reason for this is probably Alexandra Robotham, aka Alex Hope, being one of the credited writers for the album). The songs flow perfectly into one another, and there is nothing that interferes with the accumulated stream of emotion.
“Forgive Yourself” is the easiest like out of the entire album, and “Gentlemen” the actual song which features Robotham’s touch – bringing back the saxophone and some light piano, together with the heavily processed snare sound of the past three Tegan and Sara albums. It almost feels wrong to not discuss these songs in the same detail as the ones on the first half of “The Kick,” but they do feel part of a larger unit, more about holding on to a particular feeling by freezing time (where this feeling was only hinted at, half-realized earlier on). What this feeling is, and how resonating, depends on the listener’s own experience. As such, words don’t really do this last half justice – it’s more about the moment, the place, and the dedication one brings in order to get a lot out of it.
If you liked that earlier galaxy reference, you will probably enjoy the (lyric) video for “Sky Love,” the cosmic-pop song of the album, with a trance lead all mixed up in 80s glam energy, also bringing back some of the motifs of “Sister Ray.”
“Too Much Colour” is a stripped-down piano track, and if you somehow think “no way is this gonna be good too!” then you are in for a major surprise. Almost a meta-commentary on the album itself (one big splash of color), the song grows and grows, packing a punch at unexpected point in the album’s architecture. Allen manages to make the entirely beat-less final track conjure up the textures of Imogen Heap and immateriality of Enya.
What more could be said about “The Kick”? It’s a modern pop album that’s a heavy blast of ’80s pop nostalgia, all about holding on to a feeling (“Holding Onto Heaven” indeed), and it will manage to surprise even the most vexed pop naysayer. Louisa Allen finds the winning combination between intelligent songwriting and wordplays, infectious hooks and collaborating with the right people to get things done, resulting in an album which seems a rarity in the world of pop music: it gives, but it also takes away. If it largely sustains itself, it also seems intent on inviting the listener to get up and dance, to throw away their troubles and find the one star shining brighter in the whole elaborate sky tapestry by themselves. Filled with little details that make all the difference, but also one epic statement of intent, listeners will still be able to enjoy this pop masterpiece piece by piece, but its effect is massively enhanced when listened to it as a whole.
(5 out 5 stars)
“The record was written from a place of wanting to escape the walls of my own apartment, I wrote it imagining freedom and dancing and people being able to hold each other again. Being so isolated made me really dig deep into my mind and my imagination just ran wild and I spent so much time on zoom day and night just writing words and melodies and before I knew it I’d written an album’s worth of material. I felt trapped and almost like my insides were dancing but I couldn’t express it, but in writing it allowed me to feel free again. This record feels like a new start and the ability to come back to life after such a strange time of us all being alone.” – Louisa Rose Allen
Featured image is EILLAH II by Emma Lindstrom
Reading material: Emma Lindstrom’s Paintings of Galaxies
Watch: Foxes interview with Jess Iszatt