Should we believe Sondre Lerche when he goes on the record saying he’s no sentimentalist? This is a guy who has made a career out of pumping out charmingly polite love songs in a strictly European pop rock tradition. It’s not unfair to say that sentimentality has run thick through the Norwegian singer’s catalog since he started shipping albums across the pond in 2001. Yet here he is, proudly proclaiming on Please‘s strongest song, “I loved you a lot, but I’m no sentimentalist.” I think he’s in on the joke, though; the song is called “Sentimentalist”, no negative modifier to be found.
Please is Lerche’s seventh album (ninth if you count the soundtrack he commandeered for the Steve Carell flick Dan in Real Life and a live recording released under the tongue-in-cheek title Bootlegs), and in certain ways it’s his most texturally adventurous yet. Take that gleefully ironic “Sentimentalist” and the way it blurs the boundaries between 1940s string ensembles and guitar-driven shoegaze. An upright bass and acoustic guitar march through the song’s middle, but all around them, airborne instruments twist and dive and fight for space. A distant electric guitar whimpers through a few pedals; a piano does its best impression of a harp. And Lerche, captaining the whole pretty mess, performs some of the most entertaining vocal somersaults we’ve heard from him in years.
Rarely does a Sondre Lerche song emulsify so smoothly. Most of Please, like most of his discography, plays out more disjointedly, with raw hems and joints sticking out at odd angles. He’s still the sort of songwriter whose production is always flawless, even if his structures run askew. On the opposite end of the spectrum from “Sentimentalist” sits “At Times We Live Alone”, a loose acoustic number whose ample negative space gives way to a brief crunch of distorted guitar by its sixth minute. Compared to most of the album, it’s tiresome; compared to the full and flowing waltz of “Sentimentalist”, it’s a cold, barren world. The contrast is only heightened by the track listing, which lets “Sentimentalist” cut in seconds after “At Times We Live Alone” fades.
But this is a breakup album, where emotions should run high and the line between cool detachment and hot regret should be frail. Lerche’s playful expressions of heartbreak capture those extremes with competent, if rote, poise, even if a few of his experiments fall flat. “Hashtag never forget, no regrets,” he sings on “After the Exorcism” — a weird, forced attempt to drag Twitter into an album that, for the most part, could have been written before the advent of the smartphone. The only real updates from the Two Way Monologue era come in the form of a few strokes of brash EDM presets. Weird trance splashes punctuate the otherwise gentle “At a Loss for Words”, and on the strummy, four-on-the-floor “Legends”, Lerche cuts from a perfectly tight indie pop hook to, of all things, a watered-down dubstep wub. The synths that build through the song’s background are probably the closest he should get to a bass drop; the moment he puts them front and center, the song gets knocked out of orbit.
As far as heartbreaks go, the one that Please describes sounds relatively vanilla. “I am such a lucky guy to have meant the world to you,” Lerche croons politely on “Lucky Guy”, soap opera cellos stirring at his back. “I won’t lie, baby, you broke me/ I am truly a lucky guy,” he continues in what’s perhaps the most sanguine breakup song in recent memory. He sounds like he’d be a perfect ex in reality, but in song, that blithe acceptance feels tame, bloodless, and a little disingenuous. Is it even considered heartbreak when the split is so clean?
Essential Tracks: “Sentimentalist”