There’s a brilliantly amusing exchange in the film Fight Club when Brad Pitt’s character tells Edward Norton’s character that he is very clever and then asks how such a trait is working out for him. Norton responds, “Uh…great.”
Assessing the newest album by Norwegian-born singer/songwriter Even Johansen, recording as Magnet, seems an exercise somewhat akin to Pitt and Norton’s conversation. The Simple Life is certainly a clever affair. The record is an astutely arranged fusing of acoustic instruments, electronic textures, and captivating melodies. In the case of The Simple Life, were one to try and measure how being clever is working out for Johansen, the answer might not be quite as glowing as “uh…great”, but it would at least be “uh…well enough.”
You see, The Simple Life suffers just a bit from what is, probably, a good dilemma to have: Johansen sets the bar high right at the outset, establishing the album’s tone and musical conventions on opening track “The Gospel Song”. However, Johansen hits his target in a far more certain, far more winning fashion on “The Gospel Song” than on the rest of the record. The track opens with a catchy mix of handclaps and hums before Johansen delves into a really, really charming melody that is instantly engaging. The song could be a feasible candidate for any critic’s list of the top pop/rock songs of 2007.
Such praise for “The Gospel Song” should not be construed in such a way as to suggest that the rest of the record is a wash, however; there is certainly high-quality material throughout. Unfortunately, it’s true that nothing else quite compares to the record’s opening moments.
A list of other exciting and charismatic tracks on the album has to start with “You Got Me”, a song marked by a laid-back sensibility, both in its rhythmic groove and Johansen’s vocal melody. “Count” opens with a gorgeous legato passage led by a string section, and as Johansen layers his melody on top of the sustained beauty, the song fills out even more and attains a true richness. One of Johansen’s chief strengths is his ability to craft a really appealing melody that draws the listener into the song and places them squarely in the middle of a particular musical vision.
Other standout cuts include the banjo-driven, ambling “A Little Happier”, and “Slice of Heaven”, which, despite opening with a strange mashup of orchestral instrumentation and hip-hop shuffle, evolves into quite a nice piece of music again featuring some beautiful legato string figures.
At times, The Simple Life feels a bit too shiny and polished for its own good, as if Johansen might have a sense of his own cleverness. A few rougher edges here or there might have given the album a more enduring quality, rather than just trying to settle for an endearing quality. For example, “She’s Gone” proves poppy to a fault; the overly bright whistling and faux-reggae rhythms come off a bit shallow, not quite accomplishing the contrast Johansen seeks to establish with his broken-hearted lyrics. Tracks like this one and the title cut seem poorly executed versions of Jason Mraz or Maroon 5 songs, respectively. Johansen shows the potential to be more consistently innovative than these artists and so these occasional missteps are disappointing.
The Simple Life is worth a wide listen for: 1) the pure joy that comes from experiencing “The Gospel Song”, and 2) providing the opportunity to encounter an artist who has a world of ability up his sleeve. When Johansen maximizes that ability, the results are terrific. When he doesn’t, they at least hint at how clever he might one day become.