Hans-Peter Lindstrøm seems to be a fine candidate to play Giorgio Moroder. As the anointed czar of Space Disco, he has received a warm enough embrace from those outside the club scene that his crossover appeal seems to have been circumscribed as a surefire success. With Real Life Is No Cool the Norwegian producer looks to be vying for a disco verged on pop, or a pop verged on dance.
It’s not a surprise that Lindstrøm would change his tune in this manner, even hot of the heels of the highly acclaimed Where You Go I Go Too. That album’s epic Balearic-prog density was vastly different than the Arpadys-filtered-through-psych style jamming of his work with Prins Thomas, which was itself a major delineation from the rapid-fire arpeggio house of It’s a Feedelity Affair. Fidelity (or Feedelity, like his record label) to a specific style has never been essential to Lindstrøm’s approach, despite bringing an auteur’s approach to whatever record he’s laying down at the time.
Yet, pop still feels like a natural progression for this most unnatural artist. The broken English title Real Life Is No Cool suggests a preference for “unreal” life, the artificiality shared between studio-concocted pop and house music. So it was that Moroder merged art music with the most popular form of the time and set the stage for a continuum in which the fantastic Mr. Lindstrøm might attempt to complete the figure eight, rounding electro space disco back onto the pop music that created it.
The problem is that Moroder had the divine presence of Donna Summer, whereas Lindstrøm has Christabelle Isabelle Sandoo, (credited in the past as Solale). Christabelle has been Lindstrøm’s muse several times over throughout the years. In fact, three of the album’s ten songs (“Let’s Practice”, “Music (In My Mind)”, and “Let it Happen”) previously appeared on Lindstrøm releases. Yet, her voice is pretty unemotive for the expressionistic propulsion of Lindstrøm’s stroboscopic synths. At best, she sounds enthusiastically drowsy, like an only slightly more buoyant and horny Miss Kittin (that several leaked songs are appearing on YouTube cut to sex scenes from True Blood tells you a bit about the degree of sleaze proposed by the music). As much as this reviewer loathes the cries for more “soul” in music, modern soul being at once a poorly-defined abstract and a reflex formula, Real Life Is No Cool could perhaps use a little more of the aforementioned.
The language barrier may also be an inhibitor of emotion. Christabelle’s broken English can border on the irritating. The lyrics were supposedly made up on the spot and, for those paying close enough attention, it shows. At times, the double entendres sound haphazardly stumbled upon, such as the lyrics of “Keep It Up”, which stiltedly states “I can get it up / When you’re getting down / Get down / Dig deep” as if a confused cry of transgendered yearning, both “keeping it up” and “digging deep”. Other moments contain lyrics that begin vague enough to seem measured, but drift off into fortuitous pop word scramble. “Baby Don’t Stop” starts a line with “Are you being true with yourself / Cause when you’re giving me a dream, well / I go crazy when I see ya/ Will I make it?”, and tops that head-scratcher off with “Together we’ll be / A young girl / I don’t care / What people saying / I’m gonna be there.” If this doesn’t elicit the same kind of confused puppy dog stare that it did in me, I’d like to hear your take on it.
The album’s cavalier approach toward vocal arrangement and engagement sinks what might otherwise be a victorious sail. Perhaps, the paired duo were thinking that Christabelle’s improvisational lyrics would be a selective method of “jamming” with these tunes, but its precisely this kind of looseness that made last year’s II by Lindstrøm and frequent collaborator Prins Thomas good though not great. Nothing on Real Life is No Cool is unlistenable, but the songs are devoid of much of the industrious guidance of previous Lindstrøm work.
If you can manage to ignore the lyrics, which isn’t too hard, “Baby Don’t Stop” is a fantastically vibrant first single. It has everything that the album’s lulls lack. The jump-up horns and ebullient vocoded synth-funk melody are an obvious ode to Quincy Jones-era Michael Jackson and hence well-prepared to light up any dancefloor. The rest of the album can be is rather hit-or-miss. Lindstrøm and Christabelle never broach the precipice of “Baby Don’t Stop”. The cocaine thrust of the blaring faux-brass and piano break of “Lovesick” is close behind, as are the sleek strut of “Music (In My Mind)” and the uniquely synergetic tribal percussion and Cupid and Psyche 85 lite FM on “Keep It Up”, but there’s an overall failure to keep the energy tuned to a fever pitch.
Even though it follows that traditional disco beats are much slower than modern house’s, Lindstrøm’s sonic set-ups at times seem sluggish. The “I Feel Love” rewrite in “Let’s Practice” feels as if it has been tried before. Ditto the Miami Vice guitar riff in “Looking for What”, which asks, pertinently, “What should we do? Should we start? Should we stop? Should we start looking? Looking for what?” The former lyrics seem like questions that maybe should have been answered before, not during the recording of this album, which comes off as Lindstrøm’s sloppiest to date. The backwards-masked “Never Say Never” seems to undo the whole album as it approaches its quiet end in the ballad “High and Low”. This is perhaps a little extreme for an album that really just needs a bit of passion to spare, no matter how No Cool that may be.