With 2010’s Work, Sweden’s Shout Out Louds attempted a ballsy move: Working with it-producer Phil Ek, the quintet stripped back their swooning, bells-and-whistles indie-pop in favor of a drier, starker, less romantic sound. Problem is, people loved those bells and whistles. The keyboards, the accordions, the strings—they all helped decorate and intensify Adam Olenius’ songwriting. And in the absence of those layers, Work was certainly more measured, but also way less interesting.
Optica, the band’s fourth studio album, takes the exact opposite approach. Largely self-produced and recorded over a luxurious year-and-a-half, it’s meticulously crafted and sonically sprawling: big-budget synth-pop melancholy colored by strings, brass and woodwinds. With the one-two punch of “Sugar” and “Illusions,” Optica opens with its safest, most easily digestible tracks: Olenius doling out his finest Robert Smith hooks over disco rhythms, new-wave synths and rich orchestrations. But Optica is more fascinating when it uses those elements in more unusual ways: Mid-tempo ballad “Blue Ice” simmers in its own textures (palm-muted guitars, strings, ‘80s tom-tom fills), but never boils over into an obvious climax; the tense “Walking in Your Footsteps” colors its spread of pianos and synths with left-field jazz flute. Olenius, like Smith before him, has a knack for singing bleak lyrics in a way that sounds oddly comforting—and that ambiguity adds a layer of mystery (“It’s where I’m coming from; it’s where you’re going,” he sings on “Footsteps,” blurring the line between stalker and heartsick lover, “In a dark tunnel, blindfolded / It’s where you leave your home and I follow the steps / Into the future, like I know what’s coming”).
The worst you can say about Optica is that it’s sometimes pleasantly bland—but even when it doesn’t rattle or intrigue (the mumbly “Glasgow,” the drowsy dream-pop of “Circles”), it still sounds wonderful. In a way, blowing up their sound was just as risky as reigning it in (check Metric’s hollow, super-glossy 2012 album, Synthetica). For the most part, though, Shout Out Louds match their musical grandeur with emotional grandeur. And messy romanticism is their natural milieu.