When a precocious pop band confronts the inescapable wrath of maturity, their trajectory can evolve in one of two ways: They can either embrace their whimsical charm and cultivate a polished, more developed bridge to their sound, or they can quell their idiosyncrasies, thereby risking the unfortunate fate of mediocrity. The beloved of Montreal accomplished the former with 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, while the casualties of growing pains were felt on Sleigh Bells’ 2013 Bitter Rivals.
For Australian pop collective Architecture in Helsinki, the group’s prosaic transition appears to have fallen prey to the latter. When they debuted a decade ago with the impressive Fingers Crossed, they chartered a delightful menagerie of stylized woodwinds and irritatingly catchy children’s choruses. The band’s impishness became the cornerstone for follow-up records — including their breakthrough, 2005’s In Case We Die — but appeared to wane with 2011’s controlled Moment Bends. And now, on their fifth studio album, NOW + 4EVA, it appears that the group is still plagued by these awkward growth spurts.
Comprised of saccharine dance numbers with wiggly synths and mechanized vocal harmonies, much of the album sounds almost cartoonish. And while the stylized production value speaks to the band’s evolutionary process, it also makes them less interesting. This is epitomized in opening track “In the Future”, an upbeat, syrupy number tugged by peppy synths and sprightly keyboards. While the track isn’t necessarily unpleasant, it’s largely bland, rendering much of the sound puerile and unfledged. That tepid formula is shepherded in “I Might Survive”, a sticky dance song infused with high trombones and candied vocals.
Parts of Now + 4EVA are digestible once you’ve accepted the album for what it is and proceed under the assumption that the group aren’t taking themselves too seriously. “Echo” features Kellie Sutherland’s sedate vocals over a simple drum loop and jazzy synths, while “U Tell Me” elicits frontman Cameron Bird’s fascination with ’80s new wave pop and delivers it with percussive, mid-tempo beats.
Minimalism is an adopted theme in Architecture in Helsinki’s trajectory. Starting off as an eight-person ensemble, the group fluctuated in size before being whittled down to its current core of five. And while the resourceful band once boasted of using over 30 instruments on Fingers Crossed, their last two albums relied more heavily on synth-driven beats, shedding the quirky woodwind base that governed their earlier sound. But while they transitioned into the throes of minimalism, the unique hallmarks that had made them so interesting got lost in the fray.
Growing up, we are often told that maturity is the progression of control, and in the process we’re encouraged to harness our inhibitions. But, sometimes that can diminish inspiration and make everything unengaging. That misfortune appears to have befallen Architecture in Helsinki, and the effects are evident in listening to Now + 4EVA. It’s enough to make you long for the younger Melbournians who exuded enthusiasm and made a case against growing up.
Essential Tracks: “Echo”, “U Tell Me”