The Danish synth-pop trio come a long way on their third album.
First, the Danish trio Whomadewho overcame unfortunate AC/DC connotations and released two albums of clever indie-disco. Now, they've overcome their own reputation as peddlers of fun but ultimately rather throwaway music. Knee Deep establishes Whomadewho as a band that must be taken seriously. Every so often, a band makes an album that takes the relatively modest elements of their sound and makes them into something much greater than the sum of its parts. That's what Whomadewho have done with Knee Deep. The interplay between rock and dance music is still there, only now it's not so much interplay as a whole new union.
At eight songs, Knee Deep is being billed as a mini-album, but its power belies its brevity. This is tense, urgent music that still leaves enough room for emotion to breathe through it. The combinations of anxiety and beauty, thumping beats and squawking guitars, surely couldn't have happened without present-day visionaries like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. But the scope of musical references and influences stretches back several decades, from the krautrock of Can to the art-rock of Wire, the moodiness of Joy Division and the cathartic synthesizer pop of Depeche Mode. Yet you never get the sense that Whomadewho are aping anyone, because they mix it all up in a way that's new and fresh. The existential struggles in the lyrics are played out in the music, with a knowing self-awareness.
"There's An Answer" to the mystery of damaged relationships and frayed emotions, the opener suggests, starting out as a glitchy, vaguely jazzy pulse before reaching a sweeping, yearning chorus. But the answer is not easily forthcoming. "Every Minute Alone" makes that clear, and how. The nervous, metronomic guitar suggests Radiohead, as Tomas Hoffding's wounded voice laments, "every minute alone / every day spent at home / every point of return / every thought and concern". All this pondering leads to the ultimate, excruciating question, "Should I call you up?". The music builds as Hoffding's desperation does. Drums and then a four-on-the-floor electro pulse kick in, as Hoffding's bandmates combine with keyboards for a haunting, wordless refrain. Before the song's four minutes are up, it's turned into a dissonant, free jazz-type freakout, without losing its basic structure. Surely, a strong candidate for song of the year.
"All That I Am" continues the theme of absolutes, this time with a distorted acid bassline, vintage drum machines, and ominous synths. Jeppe Kjellberg's creeping, double-tracked voice recalls David Bowie, and you marvel that this is the type of thing the Thin White Duke might come up with were he still interested in pushing sonic boundaries. "Nothing Has Changed" goes all techno-funk, its squishy bassline pushing up against some brilliantly incessant percussion. "Two Feet Off Ground" is pure Teutonic disco, while two-stepping, six-minute, psychedelic drone "Checkers" dissipates some of the tension.
The final track arrives at a sort of response to the questions that have come before, yet it's not an easy one. Amid throbbing bass, blaxploitation soundtrack hi-hats, and an almost theatrical moodiness, Hoffding chants, "Too small to understand / What makes a man / Too small to comprehend / You pretend". From such incredible self-debasement, the only consolation is this: "We're alive…it's a miracle". Then the music fades out until only the tribal drums remain. It's "an answer", yes, but hardly a resolution.
This sense of post-millennial uneasiness is nothing new to indie rock, but Whomadewho convey it with a humanity, not to mention musical substance, that many felt was missing from, say, Radiohead's King of Limbs. Whomadewho have promised a full-length album of "more melodic" songs later this year. But if Knee Deep is "challenging", it's not the kind of challenging that exhausts you. It's the kind that thrills you.