In music, the danger of trying to find a happy medium is that “medium” all-too-easily becomes “mediocre” if you’re not careful. The Danish trio WhoMadeWho seemed to be aware of this danger, and tried to avoid it altogether.
While recording the follow-up to their 2009 breakthrough The Plot, WhoMadeWho realized their music was beginning to expand beyond the sharp yet fairly easygoing electro pop/funk of their previous efforts. They decided to release the more “experimental”, darker material separately. This became 2011’s excellent Knee Deep EP, featuring a single of the year in “Every Minute Alone”. The band promised more concise, pop-oriented material in the form of a full album in 2012. Hence Brighter.
But, despite the band’s best intentions, the new album finds WhoMadeWho struggling to reconcile their moodiness with their pop tendencies. In other words, Brighter, consciously or not, sounds like a band trying to find a happy medium. And, while the result is definitely better than mediocre, it is nonetheless a bit disappointing given Knee Deep suggested WhoMadeWho were set to take a major leap forward. The songs on Brighter are shorter than those on Knee Deep, the arrangements tighter. But too many of them also seem hemmed in, as if they were meant to sprawl out beyond their four-minute running times and into something more out-there, more proggy, if that’s not a dirty word.
Lead single “Inside World” is a glimpse of what may have been the original plan for Brighter. A quick, danceable, catchy track, it combines a motorik rhythm with bright synths and Jeppe Kjellberg’s and Tomas Hoffding’s warm yet arch vocals in efficient, effective fashion that suits a band signed to a label named Kompakt.
Little of what follows is as quick, danceable, or bright, though. That’s not necessarily bad at all, especially when repeated plays reveal new hooks and melodies. This is moody music, too, and the atmosphere is rich and often rewarding. But much of Brighter suffers from a certain lack of inertia, as songs start out promisingly and then just kind of run in place. “Running Man” is a prime example, getting stuck in a reggae-meets-flamenco groove that soon becomes a rut. “The Divorce” has a tense synth-pop vibe that agreeably recalls mid-80s Depeche Mode, yet it too seems like it is trying to get somewhere it never arrives at. “Fireman” is hushed, mellow, and subtle until Hoffding breaks into a phat, growling bassline. Again, the signaled shift in dynamics never arrives, and the track fades back into the ether. Maybe that’s the point, to surprise by what it doesn’t do, but this seems like a case where WhoMadeWho would have been better served by loosening up some.
Still, several tracks on Brighter showcase the band’s newfound maturity with success that needs no qualification. “Greyhound” takes a staccato sequencer figure and Kjellberg’s deadpan crooning and gradually builds to a smart chorus and disco beat. “Head on My Pillow” employs the minor-key Depeche Mode sound to brilliant effect, the haunting, yearning chorus reminding you of just how affecting machine music can be. In another spin on a familiar, much-loved approach, “Skinny Dipping” offsets ethereal naval-gazing and wordless cooing with pure-funk bass that hits the middle of the song out of nowhere yet sounds right at home. That’s right, a’la Radiohead.
The one unbridled experiment on Brighter is “The End”. Actually the album’s penultimate track, it combines a transporting, rather beautiful melody with synth wobbling and world-music percussion. It doesn’t quite all come together, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Closer “Below the Cherry Moon”, the album’s lone six-minute track, still sounds like standard-issue 21st century post-punk fare by comparison.
One aspect that certainly works in favor of Brighter is the clear, immaculate, yet warm production. Within the overall stark tone, there is plenty of detail to be heard. WhoMadeWho know how to do synthpop right, in a way that holds respect for the past but never succumbs to a simple “retro” tag. This craftsmanship alone is nearly enough to convince you Brighter is something truly special.
It almost is. WhoMadeWho could still hit on their defining, transcendent moment if they embraced their restless spirit instead of skirting around it. Let the passion do the selling, boys. The pop will take care of itself.