Shout Out Louds are, on one hand, an easy band to love. After all, on their first album, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, the Swedish quintet deftly blended classic pop with ’80s new wave influences. It was an urgent, refreshing collection of songs, crafted by people who obviously know and love true pop music. And then, on their sophomore release, Our Ill Wills, the band got more lush, more lyrically downcast, and even more catchy. What’s not to love about that?
Yet, there’s something slightly frustrating about the band’s output. Somehow, despite mining similar veins of inspiration, the band’s output lacks a distinct sound. That may sound like a harsh, perhaps unfair, criticism, but is there a Shout Out Louds song that “sounds” like Shout Out Louds?
Think about it. There are Shout Out Loud songs that are reminiscent of the Cure. There are others with a New Order vibe. There are still others that sound a bit like Belle and Sebastian. But there’s nary a Shout Out Louds song that one would say distinctively sounds like Shout Out Louds and nobody else. This is troubling, because it indicates a band more boxed in than inspired by their influences.
And that’s exactly why Work is, in a sense, the first “Shout Out Louds record”. Obviously not literally, and certainly their discography is full of gems. While all the aforementioned influences are still present on this ten-song collection, Shout Out Louds no longer sound like they are fashioning songs to mimic those influences. Rather, Work feels like the product of a band in command of their craft, no longer content to mimic.
This is largely due to a new artistic approach. Rather than filling every space with layers of instrumentation — as they did on Our Ill Wills — Shout Out Louds decided to strip down their sound, letting the songs breathe. And breathe they do. On the first handful of listens, some of the songs sound as if there is little holding them together, as if one missed beat would cause the whole thing to collapse, but collapse they don’t, and they even gain vigor with repeated listens.
Leadoff single “Walls”, for example, starts off with minimal instrumentation and hardly any melody. Over a choppy drumbeat and recurring piano riff, singer Adam Olenius practically talks his way through the lyrics. As the song builds, however, it gains more elements — a discernible melody, rhythm guitar, new wave guitar hooks…. It’s an incredibly catchy song, though it’s not apparent on the first handful of listens.
The same approach is found throughout the album, such as on opening track “1999”, which begins with tinkling keys before falling into little more than the rhythm section backing Olenius’ nostalgic tale of days past. Again, though, the song gains momentum and instrumentation as it progresses, eventually sounding like a lost classic from an ’80s new wave compilation. Yet atlhough those trademark new wave influences find their way into most of the songs on Work, the album as a whole feels more restrained. In stripping back their sound, Shout Out Louds left only what was essential to each track, paying close attention to the pacing of each.
If anything, this new batch of songs is more akin to the Sea and Cake in its meticulous attention to nuance. There’s even a hint of Sam Prekop’s airy breathiness in Olenius’ voice on tracks like “The Candle Burned Out” and “Too Late Too Slow”, but what initially sounds chilly and detached becomes infectious after repeated listens. The similarities between the two bands are no doubt coincidental, but they are nonetheless additional evidence that Shout Out Louds have grown as a band.
On the whole, then, Work is a more subtle, subdued album than Shout Out Louds’ previous LPs. It is also a far more consistent one, capturing the band maturing artistically. The real achievement here, though, is that Shout Out Louds have constructed an album with a distinct sound and identity — finally establishing that elusive “Shout Out Louds sound”.