Equal parts brilliant and mediocre, Criminal Heaven is a solid but uneven debut for this Swedish duo.
I was raised as an American in an environment where, for reasons still largely unknown to me, British accents were touted as inherently classier or more intelligent than mine. A result of that subliminal teaching, I tend to think anything coming to the States from overseas is preferable to all my home-grown stuff, especially music. As a fan of metal, I've always thought that Sweden had us beat. All of my favorite metal bands (Opeth, Katatonia, Pain of Salvation, to name a few) hail from that great Nordic region, and in terms of quality they seem tough to beat. So when I first heard about We Are Serenades, a duo comprised of two Swedish songwriters (Adam Olenius and Markus Krunegard), I decided that Criminal Heaven was going to be a great record, even though, well, I hadn't listened to it, and I had only briefly glanced the band's Wikipedia page. (Is that too much for a critic to admit in a music review? I don't think so.)
And while the record isn't the life-changing foreign import that I presumed it would be, it's still pretty good. I've always had a difficulty describing to people what I would want good pop music to sound like; a lot of the material on Criminal Heaven answers that. One of many examples here is the incredibly lush slice of baroque pop that is lead single "Birds", a strong contender for one of 2012's best pop songs. The songs on Criminal Heaven that match the quality of "Birds" are equally unique takes on pop music, and new evidence for my ever-building case for the superiority of Swedish music.
Two of the album's singles stand out as the strongest material here. I've already mentioned "Birds"; even better than that is "Come Home". An '80s synth ballad and a twangy, country-inflected lead guitar riff don't sound like ideal musical bedfellows, but here they work in tandem quite masterfully. The song's melancholy chorus is also great: "I don't want to know what it's like to spend the holidays on my own / I don't want to hear another Christmas song about love when I'm on my own / So come home." That track, like all the others here, is a showcase for the vocal harmonies of Olenius and Krunegard. They sing in unison so often that their intertwined voices become a unique vocal itself. This is especially the case on the album closer "Walking Home", a track that has a vocal delivery reminiscent of the Band as well as a concluding saxophone solo that puts Bon Iver's otherwise hilarious "Beth/Rest" to shame.
Yet for all of the challenging pop music We Are Serenades perform here, there's also a lot of surprisingly banal songwriting. Opening track "All the Words" sounds like the Fleet Foxes gone pop, echoey vocals and all, but it sounds easy rather than effortless in the hands of this duo. As great as the vocals are on this album, they can't save the boring lullaby "Daydreaming" or the folky title track. The weird "Weapons" begins with a flurry of sitar notes that is more akin to Flight of the Conchords' satirical folk than the sophisticated songwriting that makes up the better half of Criminal Heaven. Perhaps it's just these Swedes being a little silly, but it's incredibly out of place, even with the song itself.
All of this makes for a maddening, though ultimately satisfying listen. The strong material on Criminal Heaven is so good that I can just skip over the other tracks, which either meander weakly through their runtimes or just don't work that well. There's nothing egregious here, which does say something about the skill of We Are Serenades. It''s not often you hear a debut without any noticeable missteps. Rather, Criminal Heaven is a band doing incredible things half of the time and okay things the other half. I can chalk up the album's weaker moments to this being a debut record and by that measure something of a trial run. Both of the musicians involved in We Are Serenades come from different bands (Krunegard is a member of Laasko; Olenius is in the Shout Out Louds), and by that token there are likely to be artistic disagreements. Nevertheless, Criminal Heaven shows a promise that's hard, maybe even impossible to ignore.