Pleasure arrives as Sondre Lerche’s eighth studio album—ninth, should we include his soundtrack for the otherwise forgotten rom-com Dan In Real Life, which today seems an appropriately off-kilter retrospective of the tones and textures dominating his career’s first half.
Since 2001 debut Faces Down cast the then-teenaged Scandinavian singer-songwriter as a winsome prodigy, he’s both charmed and irritated a critical press left wondering whether such a preternatural talent for popcraft would always feel somewhat squandered via genre wanderlust or willful eccentricities.
If his fanciful wordplay, bristling intelligence, and restless muse deserved the regular comparisons to occasional tourmate Elvis Costello, it’s only this year’s model. The first decade of Lerche’s discography, however bewitching the manifold delights, revealed no trace of the passions bleeding through Costello’s early work. Dalliances with jazz quartets and tropicalia are the playthings of either aging icons or acclaimed, successful, content (and rightly so) wunderkinds.
Then, around the release of 2011’s self-titled chamber pop masterclass, Lerche’s marriage of six years fell apart, and his subsequent album—a surprisingly-bouncy lyrical stroll through the stages of grief—finally suggested an emotional investment commensurate with the thoughtfulness of arrangements. Though conflating artistic depth with artist torment may be famously reductive, Please could only be read as a whistling-through-the-gallows evisceration of his recent divorce. Pleasure begs rather different assumptions. Lerche, like so many ex-husbands trying to move on from marital bonds torn unpleasantly asunder, sounds like he’s been hitting the clubs.
Launched upon the slinkily-martial New Ordered synthscape of album opener “Soft Feelings,” Pleasure leaps headfirst into a hip-rolling embrace of entanglement-free carnality empowered by this modern world. Though he’d previously feinted dance-music interludes, near all of the current collection—the fractured Bacharach’n’roll freakout of “Violent Game” a notable exception—feels enmeshed within this admittedly ‘80s-obsessed moment
However stark the departure from his comfort zones, Lerche seems enlivened by the change. That effortless facility with instantly-memorable melodies enables choruses to suddenly erupt full-flourish or drift along as a quoted jingle. The effect is thrilling and supremely confident, with almost casual intimacy. Moreover, the peculiar appeal of vocals crooned along a chosen key’s fringes, swaggering through the fragility of a limited range with manful bluster, ride the beats with just enough hesitation to sugar the more corrosive lyrical regrets or render over-flirtatious moments charming.
While never shying away from the swoonable essence of a cover boy troubadour’s love balladry, Lerche had before maintained a certain wry distance now wholly abandoned. Even when setting up so clear a pisstake as the “Private Eyes”/”Every Breath You Take” pop-stalker anthem parody “I’m Always Watching You” (“voyeurism” and “masochism” rhyme on the bridge), he’s still swinging that Norwegian wood.
Once again, attempting to divine artist’s thoughts from his recordings should be considered a fool’s gambit – particularly when the back catalog has been filled with false flags of unrepresentative whimsy. For all we really know, Pleasure was conceived as purely conceptual riposte to the naked soul-baring of Please that elaborates the logical next phase of our newly-single pop star. All the same, there’s an personalized urgency to the joys and emptiness of sport-fucking. Though he’s taken such pains to defy anything resembling a trademark sound, Pleasure’s aggressive tonal shift must nevertheless seem jarring to longtime fans. Given the album’s adrenalized kick, it also marks his best chance in a long while to make new ones.