The Norwegian transplant Sondre Lerche, a music industry veteran at only 27, possesses considerable talent, but his new album Heartbeat Radio finds him working too hard toward no discernible end. The album is about love in its most mundane forms — passing the morning paper back and forth over tea, squabbling, driving, chatting. It’s a minor work for minor moods, but it mostly fails to achieve even its modest intentions.
There’s a sort of ill-fitting grandiosity to the overall aesthetic — strings swoon, Lerche’s vocals keen, the arrangements build gradually to thundering crescendos — but it’s an empty largeness, music like an airplane hanger. Why all the drama? These aren’t desperate or urgent songs. Lerche’s virtues — tight, varied instrumentation; gentle, literate guitar pop; smart and simple song construction — are the virtues of smallness and care. The arrangements are admirable — odd, precise, elegant, the many modular transitions sudden yet seamless — but all the passion and bombast feel phony, put-on, manipulative. Lerche leans too hard on his pose as a wounded young Romeo
The lyrics are barely worth mentioning, neither positive nor negative. Lerche knows how to fit words into song forms, inserting syllables and phrases with the same almost classical-minded precision he brings to his arrangements, but he seems to select words for their crisp and delicate phonetics, their graceful rhymes, with little regard for their meaning. This could work wonderfully if he would really abandon communication, turning his lyrics into tone-poems that interlock, puzzle-like, with his latticework songs, but instead he stays within a very dull mode of heartsick musings and pseudo-sophisticated mumblings. (The one notable exception is “Like Lazenby”, which is built around a battling but somewhat delightful metaphor about the one-time James Bond.) His delivery is clipped and dry, almost sarcastic, and the conflict between his detachment and the gorgeous, endlessly swooning strings is a little bit intriguing, but I’m not sure that such dissonance is something that Lerche intended.
He’s at his best when he drops the Rufus Wainwright shtick and lets his natural charm and naivety shine through. “Words and Music”, his sunny little slice of Paul McCartney pop, tastes like biting into a cool, ripe orange. It’s the best song on the album, vulnerable and sweet and affectionate. It is, in its way, a masterpiece in miniature, perfect for a certain sort of warm, quiet moment, and it’s likely to find a small but permanent place in my life. It’s the exception, though; in general, the love songs don’t sound urgent, and the heartsick songs sound like they stem from an artful pose rather than any real pain. The aesthetic he seems to be pursuing is elegance at any cost; he achieves it handily, but the price is far too high. He sacrifices truth, sincerity, magic, and danger. While there are enough wonderful arrangements and flashes of brilliance to point the way towards a potential masterwork in the still-young Lerche’s future, Heartbeat Radio isn’t much more than supremely well-constructed background music. The album is smothered by care and clockwork.
The radio plays on and on. The heartbeat flat-lines.