Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche has always been a man of textures. From tropicalia tinged smooth folk balladry to Costello-like pop rock freak outs, Lerche’s career has been one of sonic exploration marked by only two constants: endless energy and hopeless romanticism. Whether he’s playing old school jazz or dipping his toes into neo-psychedelia, Lerche always shows up with a spring in his step and his heart on his sleeve. Well, that was until about 3 albums ago now with his ludicrously lush eponymous album that slowed everything down to a hazy crawl. Finding himself at the tail end of a 7 year marriage, Sondre Lerche was a testament to the quiet contemplation of love’s dissolution and, ever since then, he’s been shaking off the weight of his loss with even further experimentation.
With that record, Sondre was found lost in the echo chamber of his own dreams and doubts, focusing his lyrics inward and expanding his sonic palate outwards. There’s a dizzy listlessness to the whole affair and it’s as heart achingly ambient as a breakup album can be. The album that followed, however, was the true “divorce record” as Sondre claimed. Unlike Sondre Lerche, with its nostalgic ruminations on the theoretical end of a relationship, Please was focused entirely on the wound left when it all came to a head. But, no matter how sad the record is (and trust me, it’s a sad one), there’s a manic joy to the whole affair where one might expect sober reflection. For Sondre, it was a matter of embracing it all head on and wrestling with what was happening. In this struggle, he created his most aurally far reaching album to date, filled with arrhythmic drunken shambling (“At Time We Live Alone”) and scorched-earth anthems for scorned lovers (“Lucifer”) all with a disarming charm that is, at times, almost uncomfortable in its honesty. It’s a fascinating exercise of a record and one that pays off handsomely not only for fans but, seemingly, for Lerche himself. If Sondre Lerche was the dirge, Please was the flickering funeral fire, and Lerche’s newest album, Pleasure, is the dancing on the ashes.
Now, on the other side of the whole affair, Lerche seems even less constrained by expectations in his experimentation and ready to embrace his heart’s desires no matter how alien the detours might seem. Going back to the subject textures – this one has got them in spades. Blinding, neon Day-Glo spades. With the harsh, off-putting synth bass lines of album opener “Soft Feelings,” you will know immediately that this is an album of singular trashy 80’s synth-pop aesthetic. Only “Violent Games” – a 7 minute track of frantic ferocity that feels like a perfect bridge between Two Way Monologue and Phantom Punch – sounds remotely familiar to his past work and its inclusion, however welcomed, does throw off an otherwise unified album. From the uncomfortably pleasant Hall and Oats-esque “I’m Always Watching You” to the Prince-lite croon “Baby Come To Me,” this is an album very much in love with the current 80’s revivalist movement in pop music. Unlike other artists in this neo-New Wave who play it safe by radio standards, Lerche continues to approach songwriting his own way – for better or worse.
For an artist who has spent his entire career perfecting his own off the cuff brand of pop revelry, Please marked an unhinged and unexpected sharp-edged looseness to his song structures that have only been amplified on Pleasure. It’s not that Sondre hasn’t explored with these kind of strange and asymmetrical rhythms before. Looking back at some of his B-Sides like “Johnny Johnny Ooh Ooh” or “Europa and the Pirate Twins” you can see that he’s been tinkering with some of these ideas for some time – it’s just after all these years he’s finally comfortable enough in his own skin to explore them over a whole album. Although tracks like “Serenading in the Trenches” seem ready to set the club ablaze, there are some real head scratches here that, if they weren’t so damned interesting in context, could be dismissed as B-side fodder. The ramping intensity of “Bleeding Out in the Blue” finds its apex in a disorienting electronic crescendo that somehow feels at once overstuffed and yet sparse but still remains pleasant despite itself. Then there’s the dark synth banger of “Hello Stranger” which basically feels like the title track with its hyper-realized 80’s gleam and its earnest pleas for the simplicity of a moment’s pleasure. It’s a fun song, certainly, but one that feels downright dangerous in light of his previous catalog. And really, that goes for the whole album.
It’s not that Sondre’s lost that hopeful, signature spark of romanticism but it’s undeniably a different beast on this record. Although he seems exhausted with the thought of meaningless, fleeting relationships, he also seems hell bent on giving them a go anyway. Please was Sondre cleaning his wounds in the studio, Pleasure is Sondre covering them up with a leather jacket and exploring the night. And, really, the whole affair feels much like a boozy night out on the town where the only plan is blowing off your worries – there’s a joyous frivolity to its manic meandering. In the end, I won’t say that this is as successful an exploration as his previous two records, with the sheer number of twists and turns and flourishes that don’t quite all mesh together. He remains an undeniably talented songwriter, however, and there are hooks throughout the record that will remain stuck in your head for days. So, despite the wild ride, it’s certainly a pleasure.