Ex-Irene and Laurel Music songwriter's new synth-pop breakup album is superficially appealing, but overwhelmed by its reliance on pop culture references.
In adapting Alejandro Amenábar's Abre los ojos into the 2001 American film, Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe made some sly additions to highlight the ways cultural properties become part of our sensemaking experience. In the film's big reveal, we discover that Tom Cruise's lucid dreamer has helped construct his reality partially out of meaningful paintings, songs, films and even album covers. It's the conscious, deliberate version of something that we all do subconsciously.
On Azure Blue's debut, former Irene and Laurel Music songwriter Tobias Isaksson also creates a dreamworld of sorts based on the cultural properties that move him. Unlike Cruise's character, disfigured from a car crash and cryogenically preserved after a suicide attempt, Isaksson is working through the somewhat more mundane traumas of romantic breakups and a move from Gothenburg to Stockholm. Also, unlike the lucid dream of Vanilla Sky, the personal landscape that Isaksson builds on Rule of Thirds isn't simply augmented by his pop culture fixations, but dominated by them.
Isaksson wears his obsessions on his sleeve throughout, from the bandname—a riff on Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue—to the synth-rich musical DNA here, a departure from the twee folk-pop of Laurel Music and the horn-heavy bubblegum of Irene. Echoing Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at their chart-friendliest with a few moves borrowed from New Order, these songs seem custom-made for cutting from the last shot of Molly Ringwald and her beau to the credits.
At the same time, for all of Isaksson's obvious affection for the know-it-when-you-hear-it microgenre of John Hughes Sad Songs for Young Lovers, he files down the sharp rhythmic edges—the vague remnants of funk left over in the transition from post-punk to New Romantic—and doesn't quite have the voice for epic swooning, so sticks to a muted, almost whispered delivery. It's probably the best use that Isaksson has found for a voice that could sound unwieldy and off-key on Irene's material, but combined with the gloss of reverb, it's a little too understated here for both the style from which he heavily borrows and the subject matter.
To his credit, Isaksson is upfront about his cultural borrowing, and it's clearly by design that this all sounds so '80s retro. He even casually signals his dependence on cultural influences by opening Rule of Thirds with a cover of "Fingers", originally a piano ballad on late Go-Betweens songwriter Grant McLennan's 1992 solo album Fireboy. Isaksson transforms it into a mid-tempo wash, the anger and confusion in McLennan's cracked delivery of "Hey, you / Watch me fall through your fingers. / I will spill away like sand" muted to contemplative acceptance. If it fails to pack the wallop of the original, "Fingers" is still a triple-whammy in establishing Isaksson's reference-heavy means of coping with sadness. It's buttressed not just by the cultural weight of McLennan himself, but McLennan's own allusions—the line "I still remember the night you sang 'Moon River'" connects Rule of Thirds to the Mercer/Mancini classic and Audrey Hepburn's famous performance of it in Breakfast at Tiffany's (although banking a relationship on a shared liking for Breakfast at Tiffany's in 2011 suggests that Deep Blue Something has taught Isaksson nothing).
The references continue throughout, most notably on first single "Catcher in the Rye", on which Isaksson claims "It's just a cycle / didn't we all find out long ago? / From Hemingway to the Crystals / from de Sade to Sade". The names accumulate, but don't interact (aside from the cute de Sade/Sade joke), as if Isakkson seeks to trace the arc of a relationship solely through the literature and music the lovers once shared. But the name-drops are all so general and scattered that they only serve to distance us from the stories being told. On "Little Confusions", Isakkson celebrates "Love, love, love, love" over a fleet-footed rhythm track and dramatic soundscape, but it's the borrowed dialogue snippets from Hal Hartley's Simple Men that make the most salient, emotionally complicated points. "Chesil Beach" isn't exactly a re-telling of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, but, despite it being a reasonably elegant closer in its own right, Isakkson's attempt to borrow weight from McEwan's novel via title comes across as kind of desperate.
"I said I'd give an eye for you / but that was just a lie / I said I'd be The Catcher in the Rye for you / but that was just a lie", Isakkson sings on "Catcher in the Rye". I suppose offering to be someone's art object of obsession is romantic in some sense, but this gets to the heart of the problem with this superficially appealing, but strangely empty breakup album. The complicated history of Catcher in the Rye obsessives aside, Rule of Thirds posits that a desired means of establishing emotional rapport is through shared cultural enthusiasms, and this is reflected in its musical reliance on artists that Isakkson loves. But by cloaking himself in their sounds and by presenting his thoughts through a thick filter of name-drops and influences, we never truly get to know him.