A Danish choirboy is set loose in a dark synthpop netherworld. No hijinks ensue.
The absurdly-named electro-pop quartet When Saints Go Machine makes music that’s both unforgettable and frustrating, and mostly for the same reason: the singer’s voice. Nikolaj Vonsild’s falsetto is a dark and throaty thing, and his vibrato is visible from space. In every song, Vonsild’s voice hits its sweet spot like an arrow hitting a bullseye, quivering with passion and pleasure. The man obviously loves to sing. He sounds a bit like Erasure’s Andy Bell without the soul aspirations, a bit more like Antony Hegarty without the melodrama. Actually, he sounds a lot like a Danish choirboy set loose in a synth netherworld of ostinatos and polyrhythms, his voice swirling into multitracked polyphony as bad dreams ricochet, walking talking endlessly, dancing dancing on his tongue.
While the band’s synth tracks are good, even great at times, Vonsild’s voice is the Saints’ defining characteristic. So it’s a shame that he sounds a little precious throughout their debut LP Konkylie (Danish for “conch shell”). It’s often hard to tell what he’s singing about, as though he mustn’t let enunciation interfere with his pristinely honed vocal sounds. It’s not that I care what he’s singing about, necessarily; a brief review of the printed lyrics convinces me I’m not missing much. But paradoxically, Vonsild’s a good enough singer that his muddled diction makes him sound stiff. When Michael Stipe famously mumbled through the first couple REM albums, you could just figure he didn’t know any better. But Vonsild sounds like he’s striving to make every syllable attain its Platonic ideal of mysterious electronic melancholy, at the expense of actual communication. He sucks some of the life from these 10 songs.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of life to go around. Though the songs are deliberate and midtempo -- no ravers, and only one boring slog near the end -- their synth parts are built to pop and lock together, with all the inescapable momentum of a game of Mousetrap. The Saints build their two best songs around keyboard hooks of dreamlike clarity: “Chestnut” sounds like dripping water echoing through hungover ears, and the severe nine-note fanfare of “Church and Law” slices the song’s texture like a guillotine. Other songs’ textures find cool ways to use handclaps, lasers, weird laundromat churgles, and Vonsild’s manipulated voice. When the faire folk ballad “Konkylie” erupts into a geyser of cascading falsettos, it’s a euphoric moment. “Add Ends” ends the album with dripsodies of pleasure.
Though Konkylie nearly always sounds good while it’s on, the songwriting’s not always on point. “Jets” rocks a solid Remain in Light groove, but good luck remembering anything else about it. “The Same Scissor” is more notable for its intensely annoying sermonizing -- “We’re all cut by the same scissor” -- than for anything in its music. And that boring slog near the end, “Whoever Made You Stand Still”, sounds more like Michael Penn soundtrack music than anything you’d actually want to listen to. They all end pretty quickly, though.
Look, there’s no mistaking When Saints Go Machine for anyone else, and Konkylie is frequently a briskly paced pleasure machine. Those facts alone make the band easy to admire. But I still wish I knew, in their peppy first single “Kelly”, exactly what happened the first time Kelly kissed a boy. Or more to the point, I wish I got the sense that Nikolaj Vonsild cared as much about Kelly as he cares about singing Kelly’s predicament so exquisitely.