It is not difficult to imagine two distinct responses to the third studio album by Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe, the Norwegian folk duo who make up the Kings of Convenience. One will be the inevitably enthusiastic welcome the band will receive from devoted fans who have been waiting five years for a follow up to Riot on an Empty Street, the group’s last album (itself appearing after a gap of three years following the international debut Quiet is the New Loud). They will probably be heartened to discover that the Kings are providing business as usual, creating that intimate sonic space that is their calling card and, for their fans, what makes them unique.
Then there will be those for whom this music does nothing but rework tired stereotypes of the past. Bringing the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel into the 21st century and forging sonic connections with the twee pop of Belle and Sebastian will not be deemed sufficient to consider this music worthwhile. Accompanying this there may well be a wariness of nostalgia or, at least, an aversion to a music that seemingly refuses to assert its place in the here-and-now. Those averse to niceness in pop will probably steer clear, too (though they’ll be missing a trick or two if they do).
There will also be a significant amount of non-response from those for whom none of the above will matter, because the music will not enter their consciousness. The Kings of Convenience are the least likely group to assert themselves where they are not welcome, and many people will continue to be unaware of their music. That said, in the five years since the release of Riot on an Empty Street, it has become common to use sensitive singer-songwritery material as the ubiquitous backdrop to “emotional” moments in television dramas, and the Kings may well find their new material added to such playlists and entering an ever greater number of sitting rooms (or should that be lounges?). Vocal harmonies and quiet acousticism have also come to the fore in the work of 1970s-referencing acts such as Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, and the steady pollination processes of Internet forums may well carry the Kings to new ears.
Declaration of Dependence has plenty to offer to the first and third groups, and not so much to the second. It opens with “24-25”, a gorgeous, haunting song that manages to evoke loss as it anticipates its pivotal lyric: “24 and blooming like the fields of May / 25 and yearning for a ticket out”. Intricately picked guitars work around each other, and close vocal harmonies alternate shades of warmth and melancholy. The song might have been even stronger had it not only been about lost time, but also lost itself in time. The band could easily have doubled the running length and allowed its warm tone to develop (see, for example, the extended running times of Richard Hawley’s latest material). Perhaps that’s the point: time is fleeting and joys are snatched away before we know it. But the song seems to say otherwise at the lyric’s close: “Dreams burn / But in ashes are gold”. And the album that follows is drenched in hazy sunset ambiance that seeks to dwell in an extended moment of longing.
“Mrs Cold” ups the tempo with some bossa nova strumming and a catchy lead guitar part, with melancholy ditched in favor of sunny optimism. It’s a different type of intimacy to the first track, but, like “24-25”, the sense of intimacy may be an illusion. Both songs seem to be about the dangers of vulnerability invading boundaries; “you feel vulnerable around me” is the chorus’s pay-off line. Piano leads off the intro to “Me in You”, while single “Boat Behind” and “Peacetime Resistance” add jaunty violin to the mix. These are effective additions to the dual guitar set-up that is the core of the Kings’ sound, and extend the intimacy of their sound without drowning it.
For a listener who looks for something more fleshy, the group are at their most effective not when making charming holiday records, but rather when gesturing towards a darker place. Two tracks in the middle of the album, “My Ship Isn’t Pretty” and “Renegade”, provide fine examples of this. The first has a somber lyric delivered over stark strings and doom-laden bass notes and manages to evoke the 1970s work of Scott Walker, the vocal line dominating the instrumentation and rhythm. “Renegade” has a slightly brighter tone and gestures more towards the quiet acousticism of 1980s acts such as the Cocteau Twins, the Go-Betweens, and the Lilac Time. The sound is not that of the Cocteaus, but there is a similar air of dreaminess; Stephen Duffy and the late Grant McLennan, however, are much closer matches in both style and delivery.
Therein lies one of the continuing problems with Kings of Convenience. At those moments when the band’s lost-summer aesthetic starts to wear thin, it’s difficult not to think about other acts who have done it better or before (or both), and who lead in turn to their own influences (Duffy, for example, takes his listener quickly to Nick Drake and Crosby, Stills & Nash). In fact, there are plenty of pastoral precursors to the Kings style beyond the obvious reference points of Simon and Garfunkel. Quiet is no longer the new loud (if it ever was), and the Kings may need to up their game if they’re to leave work of lasting value. Then again, it’s dependence they’re declaring, not independence, and they’ve produced a thoroughly dependable album to ease their listeners through the bittersweet withdrawal of autumn.