[24 July 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
If pop music history was just and fair (which it isn’t), then Robyn’s self-titled 2008 album (available internationally for years prior) will go down as one of the finest albums of the new millennium.
Doing what Madonna so desperately wanted to do with her latest glut of club-oriented releases, Robyn mixes confessional lyrics with sassy club beats, putting up a tough girl front before tearing it down right before our very ears, all while the ample and dexterous production work of the Teddybears, the Knife, and Kleerup dance around her, adding up to make one of the most remarkable pop discs in recent memory. The album is an incredible achievement that’s made all the more commendable given that Robyn—a former anonymous teen-pop starlet—began fighting her label for control of the songs she sang and the producers she picked, eventually breaking off with her massive label conglomerate before forming her own imprint (Konichiwa Records) to release Robyn, scoring a UK #1 with the gorgeous synth-ballad “With Every Heartbeat” in the process—the ultimate “fuck you” to the major label handlers who tried to control her for so many years.
Following such success, that song’s producer—the scraggly-haired Andreas Kleerup—became an in-demand beatmaker, eventually working on the track “Lay Me Down” off of Cyndi Lauper’s critically-acclaimed comeback album Bring Ya to the Brink. Though Kleerup’s trademark style began to slowly emerge (snappy percussion beats, percolating keyboards, soft-spoken female singers opening themselves up in front of a microphone, etc.), his resulting eponymous debut winds up falling short of what we’ve come to expect from this new Swedish dance superstar.
Kleerup is a mid-tempo electro-album that’s drenched in strobe-synth flourishes and a few nifty production tricks. Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” appears here in unaltered form (still as stellar as the first time you heard it), but with Cyndi Lauper—not as much so. The instrumental to “Lay Me Down” is featured here on the album, but without Lauper at all. In fact, the track has been renamed “Thank You For Nothing” and instead of Lauper’s vocals, it’s now Kleerup himself repeating the track’s title over and over, making for a not-so-subtle jab at the “True Colors” singer. Kleerup has right to be bitter—“Lay Me Down” was a spectacular highlight off of Brink—but perhaps this little bit of trivia wouldn’t be so noteworthy if the rest of Kleerup managed to reach the same heights of “With Every Heartbeat”; instead, all we get are not-so-subtle variations on the “Kleerup sound”, something which is undeniably fascinating to begin with but proves to be remarkably unsatisfying by the album’s end.
Things start of promising enough with “Hero”, wherein a rubbery synth break gradually builds into a warm dance haze with a full-blown children’s choir brought in at the end to give the track just the right amount of epic push. As clichéd as it is to use a choir in the middle of a pop song (said choir reappears on the even-better “Forever”), Kleerup uses this dramatic crutch well, amplifying the drama of his club instrumental without going overboard. This restraint is the key to Kleerup’s best productions, as he knows the payoff is just as important as the buildup, often saving his quirky instrumental flourishes until the second verse of any given song, letting the beats firmly establish things before he swoops in with the right amount of instrumental color.
This trait is brilliantly exhibited on the song “Until We Bleed”: a haunting, damn-near minimal number wherein Lykke Li is brought in to give the right amount of girlish gravitas to the haunting, lonely lyrics, Kleerup waiting until right after the chorus to bring in the sorrowful string section and driving the point home. Of course, the whole thing is anchored by a simple 4/4 beat, making it oddly danceable, but—just like with Robyn—the pop surroundings disarm us for the lyrical blows that follow, Lykke Li making it sound as if we as people love out of fear of being lonely more than anything else. It’s a chilling number, but it shows that Kleerup’s giant hits so far weren’t a fluke ...
... or were they?
One of the lead singles from Kleerup is a track called “Longing for Lullabies” (the video of which is at the bottom of this review)—a tune that traces “With Every Heartbeat” far too closely for comfort, making the same key changes in the same places, awash with the same electronic flourishes and yes—even a similar-sounding string section is brought in half-way through. Though pop song sequels are fine in and of themselves (it worked for Kelly Clarkson, didn’t it?), tracks like “Longing for Lullabies”, “Forever”, “Thank You For Nothing”, “I Just Want to Make That Sad Boy Smile”, and “Chords” all share so much of the exact same musical DNA that it’s hard to argue for Kleerup evolving as an artist when he just seems so content on circling the same aural playground time and time again. If he wound up retreading the same material on a later album, that’d be fine (that’s simply called “playing it safe” in the long run of things), but to go back to the same template so frequently on the same album, well, it’s hard to find much enjoyment in such mindless repetition.
At its worst, Kleerup sounds like it’s not even trying to say something, as “Chords” fails to make a single stylistic detour over its four minutes of run time, much as how the painful “Music for Girl” starts off as an intriguing lo-fi 80s-indebted pop demo ... and it winds up going absolutely nowhere. By contrast, “On My Own Again” sneaks up like the perkiest Cutting Crew track never made, sounding unabashedly 80s while integrating a series of fun little touches (ringing acoustic guitars, clanging bells, harmonized vocals, etc.), making for a late-album highlight.
More than anything, Kleerup works best when he’s paired with a strong vocalist. Though Robyn, Cyndi Lauper, and Lykke Li have proved to be fantastic interpreters of Kleerup’s sound, some of the lesser-known vocalists he brings in wind up nearly stealing the show away from him, like the coy Marit Bergman on “3AM” (which sounds, somewhat ironically, like a peak-era Cyndi Lauper track) and the quietly unassuming Linda Sudblad on the closing number “History”, which rides on its own unique sort of underground-club vibe, making for a gritty, sultry closing number.
Though Kleerup is filled with some truly great gems (“Until We Bleed”, the instrumental “Towers of Trellick”), it’s brightest moment is—and always has been—“With Every Heartbeat”. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Robyn’s voice is pitched a bit higher than most of the other chanteuses that appear on this album (giving her a bit of distinction), but Robyn positively sells the emotion on her song, her slight quiver on the second chorus—as calculated as it may be—still proving to be as emotionally resonant now as it did back in 2007. She’s a true pop star, and Kleerup winds up giving her the perfect backing for her remarkably well-drawn tale of romantic woe. It’s just a shame, then, that Kleerup seems to be so satisfied with his work on that track that he insists on repeating its formula ad nauseum on his debut. In listening to Kleerup all the way through, it’s obvious that he has the potential to be one of the best dance producers alive: he just has to learn how to grow first.