[19 April 2007]
One man’s sacrilege is another man’s salvation. For the Ark, the Swedish glam- and disco-friendly pop band of bubblelicious proportions, salvation is found in the payoff of a pop song’s hook, and prayers are reserved for secular things: all-night euphoria, verse-chorus-verse hallelujahs, the impact of an ephemeral three-minute song on a room of crashing bodies. The first 15 seconds of the opening title track to the band’s fourth album, Prayer for the Weekend, might cause you to think otherwise, but that’s only because you’ve been duped by its ruse. Church organs and pious choirs lose the proverbial rock-paper-scissors match to disco beats, fuzz basses, and easy-to-learn “na-na-na” refrains. This is the Ark’s gospel.
Prayer for the Weekend takes everything that was great about last year’s State of the Ark—the crunchy power-pop-isms, the bratty humor, the Broadway flamboyance—and supersizes it, a gluttonous allowance by a band that has every right to have the world eating from the palm of its hand. Just about every song on Prayer for the Weekend has a blockbuster hook, and some even sound like they were commissioned from behind the velvet rope of an exclusive corner in the heavens. It is pop from on high, blinding with the tasteless glare of studded rhinestones and indoctrinating like military drills, a familiar thrill to those who regularly lose themselves in amphitheatre-caliber choruses yet inventive enough to surprise. When the band boogies, as on the T. Rex shimmy-pop song “The Worrying Kind”, it boogies with Budokan afterburners. When it unravels tightly wound Cars-worthy riffs, as on the strutting “New Pollution”, the loosening is torrential. These are songs to be played on the world’s largest stage, to be sung in rapturous unison by a multitude of anonymous sympathizers.
And yet, though this may sound like the music of the masses, of Billboard trends and Top 40 tastes, it’s all strongly opposed to a groupthink mentality. “Absolutely no decorum whatsoever, baby,” is the final line to the chorus of “Absolutely No Decorum”, an anthem saluting free and foul speech (the awkwardness of the line’s meter is offset by its defiant attitude); it’s a sentiment which applies to Prayer for the Weekend as a whole. “If you ask why I’m so blunt / It’s ‘cause I care for you, you cunt,” Ola Salo, the Ark’s charismatic lead singer, blurts out in “Death to the Martyrs”, a raucous kiss-off to idol worship. “You’re no longer wild at heart, you’re just a boring junkie fart / And if you really wanna die, alright, then die then, you old tart!” Salo has more fun with the English language than most primary English speakers; his routine punning (the titles alone to “I Pathologize” and “Little Dysfunk You” give plenty indication) seems partly enabled by his verbal distance, so to speak.
Still, there’s a compromise in the Ark’s music, and it’s one that’s gone unacknowledged or unaccepted by the American public. (In its native Sweden, the Ark has been a great success since 2000; next month it will compete in the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest as its country’s representative.) That compromise gives the audience at-large its sweeping pop gestures—the populist-appealing refrains that rocket from rooftops like year-end fireworks—but subtracts the idiocy so prevalent in the songs of the band’s chart-topping, ideologically conservative kin. In other words, everyone can experience big, obvious pop music without being treated like a lowest common denominator. Some misinterpret such a compromise as a trick, and it doesn’t help that the Ark has a tremendous knack to undermine the establishment on which it stands. But there are no tricks on Prayer for the Weekend—compromises, perhaps, and, for those inclined, plenty of little salvations to go around.