Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sondre Lerche - Pleasure (2017)

If you had told me that the young songwriter behind 2001 debut Faces Down would grow up to release an album like Pleasure, I wouldn't have believed you. Not because I would have thought him incapable but because I couldn't possibly imagine the leap in sound it would take to get from point A to point B. But year after year and with album after album Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche has been incrementally pushing his sound in invigorating new directions that have made such an evolution possible. Pleasure is as much an album about Lerche's personal growth as it is his artistic one. It's an album rooted both in past influences, inspirations, and experiences; his present realizations, and future hopes and desires. Lerche, who grew up with a healthy diet of 80s pop and Brazilian tropicalia, has existed at sort of the nexus point of those influences without allowing his sound and vision to be too reminiscent of either. The ability to dilute what makes those influences so interesting and incorporate them without merely imitating them has been as much of a strength as his sincere, universal songwriting. Right around the time Lerche returned with his raucous, rebellious Phantom Punch, that spirit of experimentalism became a constant that paved the way for the surreal-minded art pop of Pleasure.

While Please was unabashedly a breakup album both honestly detailing and at times eluding the breakdown of his marriage and eventual divorce, his follow up Pleasure is a bit of a different beast. Beginning with his Talking Heads channeling album opener "Soft Feelings", Lerche's synthier side is at his peak and his lyrics blur the lines between what is real and what is imagined; the personal and the broad. It's unsurprisingly that three years and an album later, his divorce would still be a fruitful narrative well and yet "Soft Feelings" attempts to put some distance between him and it; exploring life in the metaphorical hereafter of unexpected singledom as Lerche wrestles with lingering feelings of both hope and resentment. It's a seesaw between trying to move on and realizing not enough time may have passed and it might never be enough to completely erase those feelings. "I can't will into motion impossible things/I can't promise devotion or make a bell unring" Lerche sings in one of the song many shifting sections and it's an excellent encapsulation not only of the song's thesis statement but where Lerche might be at the end of Please and the start of Pleasure.

"I'm Always Watching You" follows and its selection as the album's first single is incredibly obvious in the context of the album. A post-break up song lyrically based on how easy it is to keep tabs on exes with the advent of social media, it's also a song that's not as directly tied to Lerche's personal experiences. It's universally applicable, incredibly catchy and rooted in the same 80's synthpop that initiates the album to make its unflattering portrayal of obsession incredibly palatable. It's also the listener's first indication that Lerche is striving for realism not necessarily truth on Pleasure. "I'm Always Watching You" ensures a song like its successor "Serenading In The Trenches" is cohesive even if it's narrative metaphors are less plausibly rooted in actual events.

On Pleasure, Lerche not only references his influences like new wave and synth pop on the aforementioned "Soft Feelings" and "I'm Always Watching You" but he also references himself. Though lyrically very different "Serenading In The Trenches" recalls "Crickets" with it's stuttering drum line. While melodically "Bleeding Out Into The Blue" calls to mind both "Ricochet" and "When The River" from his self titled  and "Reminisce" resembles "Lucifer" with it's tropical pop springiness. There's also "Hello Stranger" which resembles Antonio Carlos Jobim standard "Águas de Março" in Lerche's lyrical delivery while also quoting one of Lerche's strongest influencers Prefab Sprout.  Lerche also derives influence from modern music doing his best D'Angelo in the funky album ender "Baby Come To Me".

Pleasure is much more than a trot through Sondre Lerche's greatest hits and those of his predecessors however. Compositionally, it's his most complex and scenic work to date. Lerche's continuous efforts to subvert traditional songwriting structure are fully realized here resulting in dramatic shifting sections like "Soft Feelings" or "Hello Stranger". Lerche offers up golden musical moments like throwaways and it makes them all the more precious and enviable since Lerche proceeds through much of Pleasure like there's more and more unexpected phrases and ideas where that came. It's a confidence that leads itself well towards the sultry croons "I Know Something That's Gonna Break Your Heart" or "Siamese Twin" and grounds the multi-faceted musical portraiture of Pleasure.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Pleasure is how very little Lerche's guitar factors into it. It's a bold move inline with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak eschewing guitar for synths on Shriek. Lerche is no multi-instrumentalist: his specialty and only instrument, aside from his voice, is guitar and so the shift is certainly unexpected. But it addition to highlighting Lerche's songwriting capabilities to their fullest, it also spotlights Lerche's trusted collaborators - his live band: drummer Dave Heilman, bassist Chris Holm, Europe tour band member Alexander von Mehren, producer Matias Tellez as well as longtime producer Kato Ådland who does much of the record's programming. It's a record that relies on the talents of others for it's most winsome moments. Take "Violent Game", a remnant from Please that features Lerche prominently on guitar but needed to be recorded live in studio to produce a cut that Lerche felt album worthy. Lerche has often approached studio recording as the antithesis to the more lonely art of songwriting so the presence of his friends and collaborators is not entirely new. It's just far more obvious when Lerche has elected to bench his instrument of choice.

While a breakup nevermind a divorce isn't exactly something you get over overnight, Pleasure shows that there's more to Lerche than that. Lerche's always been a genuine songwriter and love has been his most rewarding topic. Pleasure indicates that Lerche has no intention of letting disappointment and heartbreak alter his whole worldview nor his most reliable topic of songs. Lerche is even poppier, even dancier than he was on Please and it succeeds much for the same reasons Lerche set out to do with Please: it's a record rooted in the personal that refuses to let itself wallow. Lerche's sincerity isn't a question but for all his wry allusions to failed relationships and the like, there's an endearing push to move on; to explore what else is out there. To dust himself off, to learn and grow as well as to make sense of his feelings and the world around him by building visceral scenes of emotional theatre and knocking them down. Please make have dressed up Lerche's heartbreak in slick dance-y dressings that might've seemed a little like denial but Pleasure is an indicator that not only is all well but that Lerche is capable of reaching brand new creative heights.

Sondre Lerche's eighth full length studio album Pleasure is out March 3rd on his own PLZ Records. You can pre-order the album now. 

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