It’s interesting to think that, despite being only 28, Sondre Lerche is already a well-worn professional musician. (While I can’t say I’m quite sure what the vacant stare he’s giving on the album indicates, the redness around his eyes could maybe mean fatigue?) Beginning in 2002 with his breakthrough, Faces Down, he’s released six studio albums, waiting only until now finally to give an album his name. 2009’s Heartbeat Radio, his sixth studio outing, was chock full of bold, dramatic pieces that often culminated in swirling, gorgeous string arrangements. It was his boldest outing to date, and his best since 2004’s Two Way Monologue. Given that his career has been full of twists and turns, from the jaunty rock of 2007’s Phantom Punch to the low-key nightclub jazz of 2006’s Duper Sessions, there seems to be no indication that Lerche’s desire to drop something new with every record was going to wane anytime soon.
It’s for that very reason that this record sounds so striking: there’s nothing here that sounds like Lerche is pulling a new trick out of his sleeve. Everything on this record is something that he’s done before, albeit stripped of past albums’s grand arrangements. Overall, Sondre Lerche is a pretty low-key record; the bombastic strings are now on the backburner, and the jazz moments that dominated Duper Sessions are more or less at the forefront. On the one hand, it’s a good thing; as good as Heartbeat Radio was, I’m not sure that a Heartbeat Radio, Part Two would have been a solid choice, especially for a songwriter who has staked his career change. On the other hand, once the album’s final second has ticked away, it’s not clear that this more chilled-out Lerche record quite suits his music.
The album opens with “Ricochet”, which is the polar opposite of “Good Luck”, the track that opened Heartbeat Radio and a song that ended memorably with a chaotic burst of swelling strings. Instead, Lerche croons over a stripped-down arrangement, led by quiet guitars. The song picks up a little bit with some percussion toward the end, but essentially the album opens quite softly. The pace picks up immediately after, fortunately, with the album’s lead single, “Private Caller”. The song is a perfect choice for the single. The guitar part demonstrates yet again Lerche’s skill at picking out unusual chord patterns, and the infectious chorus is likely to get stuck in anyone’s head for days. Lerche’s skill at crafting a ballad is also present on the album’s centerpiece, the melancholy, nostalgic “Coliseum Town”. It’s a lovely, somber ballad that reflects quite abstractly (like most Lerche songs) on being lost in an unfamiliar place. The strings on “Coliseum Town” are unlike the strings on Heartbeat Radio; instead of dominating the song, they provide a lovely, lilting background to its introspective musings.
The “experimental” stuff that Lerche has done on past albums is here too, although much less prominent. Perhaps the most obvious example is the strange accordion solo at the end of “Tied Up to the Tide”. The song, for the majority of its five minute length, is a relaxed jazz piece that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Duper Sessions. Then, as it comes to a close, the electric guitar picks up, accompanied by the curiously placed accordion. It’s a particularly strange moment; it feels out of place but also somehow appropriate for the songwriter whose MO is to challenge his listeners.
The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to Lerche’s ordinarily excellent work. While it would be unfair to expect him to pull yet another musical 180, the calm and cool music here doesn’t seem like an apt summation of his work. It’s ironic, since self-titled albums often serve as statements of a musician’s intent. Many of the album’s more upbeat tracks, like “Go Right Ahead” and “Nevermind the Typos”, aren’t that far off stylistically from past Lerche recordings, but they lack the creativity that has so defined his still-young career. While a change of pace, especially immediately following a particularly lively record, is to be expected, this record sounds almost too chilled out for its own good. He’s as talented as ever — that much is for sure. With this record, however, Lerche seems more content to cover safer ground, ground that he has covered effortlessly before. He’s proved over six albums that he’s adept at writing a tune that’s catchy without being superficial. He spends a little too much time here doing that, which is why Sondre Lerche, while not a bad record, plays like a safe one.