[26 April 2011]
Norway has been living in the shadow of its more musically successful neighbour for decades now, and whilst this perception doesn’t always reflect actual talent, there is one area in which Sweden indubitably rules the roost. Yes, indie-pop is Sweden’s game—and Norway needn’t feel ashamed: Swedes are the go-to guys the world over when it comes to bittersweet harmonies and guitar-framed melancholy. Despite this, though, Norwegians have conspicuously failed to contribute much to the indie-pop canon thus far. Relax, the Mountain Will Come to You just might be the record that changes that.
Orbiting around lyricist, singer, and guitarist Ivar Bowitz, Cold Mailman constitute the poppier arm of the recent ‘Bodø-wave’, and since the release of a largely unheralded debut full-length some two-and-a-half years back, interest has been gradually swelling. From the first note of Relax, the Mountain Will Come to You, it is easy to see why. Aching guitar, lurching drums, and swelling strings emerge from a stew of dreamy reverb before Bowitz’s gently rich vocals confirm “What Now, Muhammed?” as a slice of caressing melancholy of which Low would be proud. That winning opener slides brazenly into flagship single “Pull Yourself Together and Fall in Love with Me”, which finds the band at their most ‘Swedish’—and by God if they don’t out-Swede the Swedes: witty romantic badinage, irresistible boy-girl harmonies, and a kooky but unforgettable chorus make this a single worth savouring.
By now you might have cottoned-on to the caveat at the heart of Cold Mailman’s success: this is well-trodden territory, and more often than not the tracks on Relax, the Mountain Will Come to You are lovely in a familiar kind of way. But part of their appeal stems from this. You get the impression that Bowitz is intentionally weaving the fabric of this album around the influences of the past in a manner which allows Cold Mailman both to utilise the tropes and machinery of indie-pop history, but also to view that history askance and play around with it. Besides, this relationship to a musical past is referenced several times in Bowitz’s own articulate lyrics: “my head’s stuck in 2002”, he freely admits on “Pull Yourself Together and Fall in Love with Me”, whilst “Time Is of the Essence” appears to engage with the anxiety of influence, with Bowitz noting “I’m Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore… and I guarantee that wherever we go, I’ve been there before”—he knows his band are working in familiar territory, but this awareness enables them to interact with it in often original and enjoyable ways. “Pull Yourself Together and Fall in Love with Me” seems at first listen a definitively typical indie-pop cut, but it fulfills genre expectations to such an extent that it hints at intentional parody. “Christian ballerina, come fly away with me” is the overblown opening line, whilst the refrain of “I know I’m a good girl” that (the male) Bowitz repeatedly opines suggests an awareness of the rote nature of romantic diction.
It’s not merely lyrically that Cold Mailman go beyond their brief. Relax, the Mountain Will Come to You strays into increasingly dark musical territory as it progresses, the sweet pop of the opening numbers often segueing later on into peaks of fractured guitar and walls of swirling post-rock grandeur. Just as the twee instrumentation of indie-pop gives way to heavier, bleaker backdrops, so the treatment of the genre’s staple subject: love, grows sourer. “Back in Your Bed” ruefully concedes of an old relationship that “grief-ridden as they were those days were the best I’ve ever had”, whilst amidst the simmering menace of “Katrina”, passages like “I’ve seen her, being washed out to sea… she needed oxygen to breathe” and “up to my neck in your filth” leave us unsure if Bowitz has in mind a lover or the titular hurricane that devastated New Orleans. That ain’t too indie-pop.
This murkier turn means that, melody-wise, the first half of Relax, the Mountain Will Come to You is the strongest. But by pushing in unexpected directions, by demonstrating their sure grasp of numerous sonic possibilities, Cold Mailman hint at a potential far greater than most one-note indie-pop collectives. Bowitz seems aware of Cold Mailman’s debts to the genre’s progenitors, but perhaps by establishing his band in this context he is deliberately setting them up as torchbearers. “Petra Pan” not only sounds a lot like Belle & Sebastian, but with its lilting chorus detailing ‘the state you’re in’, it directly conjures up that Scottish band’s very first hit: “The State I Am In”, a song that seemed to establish many of indie-pop’s central tenets with its quirky, eloquent, and witty tale of personal woes. To that list of grumbles—indeed to indie-pop as a whole—sounding just like Stuart Murdoch, Bowitz counters “just grow up and start living”, as if his song is a letter of reply, lost in the post for 15 years. Cold Mailman might not, as that would seem to suggest, have delivered any kind of closure to the genre, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better indie-pop album this year. Even in Sweden.