I’d like to talk about twee pop for a second, because Optica closes the door on it. I first encountered Shout Out Louds through Our Ill Wills, coming at a time in my life where I was actively seeking indie pop, and specifically “so twee” classics. Discovering Shout Out Louds wasn’t a revelation at first – it seemed I’d discovered a band so typical I could only describe it as a number-quote (“four boys and one girl”) and a dismissive description (uh, cute) – but eventually their music made indie pop another useless, variable term that essentially boiled down, once more, to the love song. Twee had opened me up to jangly retreads of Britpop, had given me records as raw as Le Jardin De Heavenly, but suddenly there was this band, predicated on string arrangements and high tension drama, and it gave me another reason to think I was listening to music’s warmest corner.
I don’t know if they’re that band anymore, the meaningful revelation or the one that I could trade on twee pop playlists and laud for silly dramas. Behind every song on Our Ill Wills was this sense that the grandeur was filling a street corner, or characterising the stony silence of an unreturned voicemail. “You Are Dreaming” was sinister and unforgiving, cutting off a friendship with the continuity you might not expect of an indie pop song. Our Ill Wills said it and meant it, then folded its arms; every word of this drama sounded real, because that’s how these lives were being lived. Shout Out Louds once traded in the genre’s sickly love routines and made them hyper-real. It feels like Our Ill Wills erred on a particular side of indie pop, one less pontificating than Belle & Sebastian and more serious than Camera Obscura. Shout Out Louds were less about the wit because it felt like a bad pantomime could say more.
Optica isn’t about Stockholm or living rooms, and as much as I long to hear the travels of some hangover Swedish kids again, I recognise that Shout Out Louds isn’t that band anymore. I remember the desperation and anger of Our Ill Wills, and remember that it incurred wrath for the jam of it, but that album was something to feel. Optica is something to behold. It boasts things like its design, and has one so good that you can appreciate the laborious undertaking this album must have been without hearing it crack. The production is unyielding, giving an infinite amount of space to these glacial songs. “Blue Ice” is smooth and slick but it sounds terrestrial, as if it’s been formally detached from Shout Out Louds city groundings. Since Work, Shout Out Louds has been a band more interested in efficiency, a studied-up indie pop band playing their tricks like they don’t need a landscape or a story. Optica isn’t settled, but it is perfected.
The songs on Optica are a second, more confident assertion of this workmanlike incarnation of the band, but they still feel impermeable. I can hear the entire construction of these songs laid out in front of me, and while it certainly carries an impressive force, I would rather feel these uproarious songs than simply notice them. “Walking In Your Footsteps” should be a flittering, joyous indie pop anthem, one that carries the playfulness Our Ill Wills did, and the path it follows is similar. Its short synth ‘n’ flutes opening is bizarre, offering the intoxicating kind of sugar hit this band owned so hard in their early years, but the song feels flattened out by a constructive rationale. These songs sound like they could kill live, but on Optica I hear the bass rumble instead of the big bolstered chorus. “4th of July”, a brooding post-punk influenced synth piece, speaks to the album’s all-at-once sparkle, and it disorientates to hear all of its riddles revealed all at once; Adam Olenius’s lyrics here are wacky and disjointed, but seem to adhere to the album’s pristine belief that everything crystallises in just one moment – “I bet it’s got a great view / I bet nobody loves you”, he sings, as if Optica‘s new drama can be learned by rote. It’s hard to get lost in moments like these, because it’s an album that exists on a vast, blank surface.
“Blue Ice” is a beautiful, slight pop song, one that slowly thaws down to nothing at all, and it sounds so much more intricate than the rest of the album’s much sweated-over party mode. That it’s the first single is telling; Shout Out Louds settled on something genuinely startling when they could’ve chosen a post-punk anthem like “4th of July”. Instead they chose a song built on one of their famous contradictions; its dramatics exist separately, here up in space right down to its surreal release gimmicks (a gorgeous planetary music video and a literal release of the song on blue ice spell out its emptying themes), but the song hardly moves. It vibes, more like, the guitar moving like a muffled vibration and short piano riffs reappearing as a rising speck in the sky.
Twee is never a derogative. It’s a dampening word, a self-deprecating word, but it spells out the sincerity found in a sillier song. The little miracle Shout Out Louds pull off in “Blue Ice” reappears later, and that almost playful, “so twee” side of the band comes back to life. Such is “Circles”, which tries to mesh the blank slate anthems of Optica with the side sitting in quiet awe. It shows that this band can mix the machine in them with the band that once got drunk and woke up on their lover’s hard floor, and that’s reassuring when the latter makes a more compelling story than a song that simply gets sung. Optica is a sad-romantic band abandoning the one thing that lay in their definition, and for better or ill, it puts their name in bright lights. It’s just impossible to see them.