Agent Provocateur, the fifth album by Foreigner , contains a bit of a riddle for anyone who has the new version of the album sleeve. That riddle is a difference in order between what the original cd shows and that which the sleeve proclaims. The order of the songs between the two versions is very distinct, as a comparison of the order will show, with the order on the sleeve first and the order on the cd itself in parentheses: 1 (7), 2 (8), 3 (4), 4 (3), 5 (5), 6 (10), 7 (6), 8 (2), 9 (1), 10 (9). What significance was placed in changing the order so that the beginning songs and ending songs are almost swapped is itself a mystery with a concept album that has a mysterious title as well, referring to people who incite others to rash or illegal acts. This album, like all previous Foreigner albums, was a multi-platinum smash, and contained the band’s only #1 hit, “I Want To Know What Love Is,” a rousing number that was said to inspire Sting when he was in the studio doing recording for his debut solo album , at least according to the band’s later excellent compilation “The very Best…And Beyond.” A track-by-track review follows:
Tooth And Nail: A grinding and industrial synth rock track that could have only been made in the 1980’s announces this album, in a track that could have been done by any number of continental supergroups like Asia or Europe, with defiant spoken-word lyrics, announces a combative mood to this song about fighting for a relationship from the very beginning of the album.
That Was Yesterday: The defiant tone in the opener is continued in this synth ballad that points to a desire to recover from a broken relationship, which was a big hit, even if it covers extremely familiar ground for the band. The tone of refusing to keep lingering in yesterday, which gives a great deal of energy to this song, seems belied by the larger context in which the song is placed.
I Want to Know What Love Is: Immediately after reflecting on the desire to move on from the past, the presence of this moving love ballad demonstrates exactly what the narrator wants to experience in life, genuine love in the midst of a world that is often cold and unfeeling. Given the context of many lives, and of the band’s body of work as a whole, it is clear that the pathos of this song resonated with many people, who shared both the difficulties described in the song and the long to see reversal of those difficulties and that isolation. This is a song that will likely be played at dances for many decades to come.
Growing Up The Hard Way: This classic album of album filler has a lot of similarities to the album opener, pointing to someone who is defiant but dealing with a lot of difficulties, expressed with very spare music and lyrics that include spoken word sections that express someone who is often in trouble and difficulty.
Reaction To Action: This song, a minor hit, is a fairly bland and monotonous song whose title describes the song’s point well, and has implications on the band’s point in the album as a whole, in that the narrator is looking for others to respond to his actions with their own reactions, and it is that mutuality, whether in the context of a cheering crowd at a concert or the response of a partner. The absence of response strikes the narrator as particularly unacceptable, which gives a clue as to the pervasive relationship dysfunction in this band’s body of work.
Stranger In My Own House: This bluesy rock song deals with a common problem, where people feel like strangers in their own house because of an absence of meaningful and encouraging communication with others, leaving them never feeling at home. Given the apparently intractable problems of communication that the band faced and attempted to overcome over and over again, this seems like a problem that the band, and many others, were wrestling.
A Love In Vain: This is song is almost a broken record, where the narrator, over spare and minimal 80’s production, pleads with a partner to respond to him and not let this be a love in vain. In listening to this sort of song being sung over and over again, one wonders if others just felt so overwhelmed by the songwriter that there was no ability or interest in replying or responding to the singer, which led him to write the same sort of song over and over again in hopes that someone would take the hint.
Down On Love: A minor hit, this song is a lovely gem of a synthpop ballad about a man giving encouragement to a woman with a broken heart that she will know love again. Perhaps the third best song on this album, the music and lyrics combine to give a touch of sweetness to an album that is often weighed down by relationship conflict. This is the sort of ballad that late-period Foreigner did well, and it deserves to be better known than it is, as its message of encouragement is one that a lot of people could use.
Two Different Worlds: Oscillating from the mood of the previous song, this song reflects on the fact that an estranged partner and the narrator seem to be living in two different worlds unable to meaningfully interact or communicate. As someone who finds communication similarly difficult and often tragic, listening to this song, which must be the 20th song so far about the same precise subject among Foreigner songs indicates that the band had reached a dangerous level of futility at this point in their career regarding relationships. Lou Gramm would revisit this particular song’s material more memorably in his solo hit “Just Between You And Me.”
She’s Too Tough: This song represents yet another monotonous 80’s rock song on this album that bemoans a woman who is simply too difficult to deal with. I hope, for the sake of some sense of restraint, that this song and the several others on this album that deal with the same sort of material are at least about the same woman, because otherwise, perhaps the songwriter of these songs ought to take some time to reflect during the hiatus on the pattern of relationship failure that his songs indicate.
The title of this album, in light of its content and context, applies in an alarmingly large amount of ways. It is difficult to tell if Mick Jones, who wrote and co-produced the album, intends on considering himself or a particular woman to be an agent provocateur trying to provoke rash responses from the other partner. Perhaps he simply wished to provoke his partner into a response at all, and was unsuccessful in doing so. On another level, the album, with its few lovely and gorgeous romantic ballads (“I Want To Know What Love Is,” “That Was Yesterday,” and “Down On Love”) and at least half-a-dozen mediocre rock songs, was a rash act provoked by the success of LA bands like Guns & Roses, whose flash and polish this album mimics without the same sort of fire and soul and conviction. In turn, the massive success of this album provoked bands to produce grittier rock that led to the growth of alternative and grunge rock that made albums that were essentially the inverse of this album, little polish, an absence of moving and touching love ballads, and songs that were full of fire and conviction and often a great deal of darkness as well. It is perhaps well that this album is remembered for its two big hits–only one of the songs that was not a big hit is really all that memorable, and the rest of the songs are evidence of a band trying to shift its approach based on the times and not succeeding on an artistic level, even if its past commercial success allowed it to sell a lot of copies.
 See, for example: