The pursuit of the artist is a valiant one. The arduous task of taking the road less traveled, the obstacle-laden path towards creating something of transcendent beauty that the world has never seen or felt is a noble endeavor. The process an artist goes through, of constantly trying to reinvent himself, to evolve to innovate and refrain from becoming creatively placid is one that can be respected by the world over.
That’s not to say it’s always a success.
Every journey has its pitfalls, every race its losers. The vast majority sputter to a halt. Others are led astray only to find dead ends. Some fall just short of the finish line.
Torbjorn Brundtland and Svein Berge, the Norwegian duo that make up Röyksopp, are artists. When their debut Melody A.M. splashed onto the scene in 2004 there was no denying that they had the passion to take on this pursuit. Their perfectionist style of production, tight beats, and well-crafted melodies immediately sent them hovering above the vast majority of the electronica world.
The kind of exposure and acclaim they netted from their debut release most likely put an understandable (no pun intended) amount of pressure on the Scandinavian group to achieve greater heights with their recently released sophomore album The Understanding. Both Brundtland and Berge have made it clear, most recently in a PopMatters interview, that this kind of pressure doesn’t affect or deter them from making the music they want to and their undaunted attitude and execution of their craft is admirable. Still, not all reinventions are effective and Röyksopp’s The Understanding is evidence of that.
The most notable difference in Röyksopp’s second album is their venture into songwriting. Melody A.M contained several applaudable aspects, but creative lyrics was not one of them. The Understanding is no different, aside from the fact that it actually does contain an abundance of lyrics.
While tracks like “49 Percent”, “Only This Moment”, and “Beautiful Day Without You” don’t display the infantile lyrics so often found in electronica (XXXX anyone?), they do display inexperience. The simple rhyme schemes and lyrical structure that litter The Understanding are reminiscent of an established poet’s initial work, work they will later despise and denounce the existence of.
This lyrical experiment casts a shadow over an otherwise excellent album. Röyksopp are still among the elite as far as electronic production goes. Their percussion is sharp, and biting as ever and the accompanying melodies exude vibrant emotional imagery that travels from solace to sorrow to exuberant joy over the course of the album.
“Triumph” opens the album as an aptly-titled operatic overture that bites from Beethoven, reengineering the melody of the composer’s famous “Moonlight Sonata”. A simple, somber piano melody is quickly disrupted by crashing simples, strings, and colorful synthesizers that build to a fever-pitch in what is an exemplary opening track.
“Sombre Detune” also stands out on the album. Heavily compressed drums support a dark melody, complimented by airy psychedelic synths. The bass drum pulses over a constant, static-laden snare creating a partnership that ensures “Sombre Detune”‘s place on DJ set lists worldwide.
To be fair though, most of the album could unabashedly make its way onto dance floors without any caveat. Even though on the array of emotion on The Understanding is more expansive than on their debut, its hard not to move to the consistent and driving rhythms of the record.
Karin Dreijer, who provides vocals on “What Else is There”, offers the most dynamic lyrical presentation on the album. Her unique voice is really given a chance to stand out on the track, a quality that is seldom seen throughout the rest of the album’s lyrical endeavors. It’s all too often that electronic instrumentalists over-exaggerate the accompaniment around their vocalists. When they are given the chance to really take the spotlight, as Dreijer is here, it can be a beautiful and much more fulfilling listening experience. Her clearly Scandinavian voice is accompanied by a driving beat sprinkled with acoustic guitar and flowing strings.
The Understanding definitely shows the growth of a young group and the innovation that Röyksopp have been experimenting with since their 2004 debut, but they haven’t yet reached the height of their potential. Not every swing is a hit, and while Röyksopp may have taken a side-step in terms of their development they certainly haven’t struck out.