Helsingborg, Sweden’s the Sounds are not literally “crossing the Rubicon” in any conceivable meaning of that expression. They do not appear to have any specific ambitions to overthrow the Roman Republic, for starters. More proverbially, it’s hard to see how they have passed any kind of point of no return, either. Their very idiom – brash, largely bathetic, updated New Wave rock – is based in an inherent desire for return. Even titling a rock album “Crossing the Rubicon” cannot be considered an act of trailblazing élan, since it was done previously by Armageddon. Who are a rock band. From Sweden.
In all likelihood, Crossing the Rubicon is so called because the Sounds self-produced and self-released the album, their third. Any band that chooses to take its commercial fortunes entirely into its own hands is taking a big step, but for this band, it’s hardly a giant leap. Several band members have previously branched out into side projects that bespeak a group of artists with corporate ambitions. Singer Maja Ivarsson popped up on Cobra Starship’s single for that huge in-joke of a movie, Snakes on a Plane, still one of the decade’s most bizarre examples of corporate-medium cross-promotion (the Sounds proper also had a song featured on the soundtrack). Guitarist Felix Rodriguez and multi-instrumentalist Jesper Anderberg are part-time songwriting svengalis for other artists, including a tune for Dutch poppers Krezip that was, evidently, among the most played songs in Holland last year (laurels are laurels, I suppose). It sure seems that this band knows its way around the industry.
And they also know their way around glossy radio-rock. Crossing the Rubicon‘s lead track and single “No One Sleeps When I’m Awake” surges on Rodriguez’s skyscraping lead guitar and Ivarsson’s star turns. If the Killers hadn’t been doing precisely the same thing much better for a good five years now, it’s possible that it might even be a bit exciting. But they have, so it isn’t. It doesn’t help that Ivarsson, for all her riot grrl expressiveness, relies on puffed-chest truisms and lacks Brandon Flowers’ penchant for obtuse lyrical snapshots as well as his bottomless capacity to yearn. The Killers can see-saw from irony to earnestness and back dozens of times in the space of a single song, which makes it nearly impossible to ding them for being either. The Sounds, sadly, are fatally pledged to sincerity in its most ponderous and uninspired form.
The only track that shows much humor is the dance-beat-inflected “Beatbox”, and I doubt any chuckles were intentional. Elsewhere, “The Only Ones” tries the power-ballad on for size, but Ivarsson slips from crooning to wailing to marble-mouthed “get-this-line-over-with” utterances. She’s boasted that she wants to be “the best female vocalist around… of at least this century”, but fine vocalists of either sex don’t let songs get away from them like this.
The finest showcase of what skill she has is the penultimate “Home is Where the Heart Is”. Much of the lyric is even more clichéd than the doormat-motto title would suggest, and the musical dynamics are more than a little predictable. But Anderberg’s burgeoning synths set the corny chorus into sharp relief, prodding the melody to get airborne. And when Ivarsson runs out of stock phrases (and it sometimes seems as if she never will), she pulls out a surprising naturalist reminiscence of her youth in craggly, sublime Scandinavia, or coos a simple, irresistible entreaty over more bubbling synths: “come take my hand / let’s go for a swim”. It’s telling that even the album highlight has so many glaring flaws, but I’ll take what little joy I can wring out of these 52 difficult minutes.
“I’d go back if I could / but it’s not the same”, Ivarsson declares in “Underground”, a perhaps-disingenuous bit of nostalgia for indie-er times. This encapsulates the problem with the Sounds and with Crossing the Rubicon: the band has a powerful self-image of themselves as swaggering, pioneering visionaries, but their perspective tilts backwards, not forwards. The suggestion arises that there is more than one way to cross the Rubicon, and that the Sounds are heading north to the wilderness rather than south to imperial glory.
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