Sondre Lerche: Please

Prior to Please, it was fair to say that Sondre Lerche could make a great record. With Please, however, he's one-upped himself and made a masterpiece.
Sondre Lerche
Mona / Yep Roc

The cliché “love him or hate him” doesn’t quite work in describing the discography of Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche; “like or dislike” is a more appropriate fit. Even if one isn’t keen on Lerche’s jazzy brand of indie pop, he’s so pleasant sounding of a musician that outright hate seems an impossible emotion to muster. At its worst, his music is inoffensive; or, as Rob Mitchum tried to coin in his Pitchfork review of Lerche’s 2002 debut Faces Down, “EZ indie”. From his inviting croon to his undeniable ability to craft a pop hook, Lerche is the kind of musician that has something to offer for everyone. Some low-key jazz to brighten up a dinner party? Give 2006’s Duper Sessions a spin. Prefer your pop with a bit of a punk bite? The vivacious Phantom Punch is right up your alley. In a romantic mood, the kind that calls for some lilting string sections? Heartbeat Radio, Lerche’s finest achievement prior to 2014, is chock full of tunes for the swooning heart.

This isn’t to say that Lerche is all about placating, however. His career offers ample evidence of his ability to mature as a songwriter over time, and during the ten years that span Faces Down and his 2011 self-titled LP, his eccentricities became more pronounced, but also refined. His penchant for odd turns of phrase and circumlocution remains an endearing charm of his lyrics (check the atypical but nonetheless compelling second chance metaphor of Heartbeat Radio‘s “Like Lazenby”). His chord progressions typically stray away from the pop songwriting playbook and dive deep into the techniques of jazz and bossa nova. If you don’t know what a major seventh chord is, you will after a few of Lerche’s tunes.

Please marks Lerche’s seventh trip to the recording studio, excluding his underrated score for the 2007 Steve Carrell dramedy Dan in Real Life. His last studio LP, Sondre Lerche, was the first time he sounded purely comfortable, set into the groove that had been done to near perfection in Heartbeat Radio. While not a bad album, its stripped-down instrumentation and chilled out mood felt like an unnecessary break from the progress he had built on — not quite an acoustic album, but close enough.

The low-key nature of Sondre Lerche makes the dynamic and colorful Please all the more surprising. But Please is a jolt to the system primarily because Lerche has never taken this many risks on an LP; he sounds as much like himself as he ever has, but he’s also managed to maintain his musical identity all the while pushing himself in directions that few would have expected before. There’s an actual breakdown in the middle of “After the Exorcism”; while it’s not quite Skrillex, it’s far closer to it than anyone would have ever imagine Lerche ever braving to go. That moment, however, is but one of the many fascinating experiments all throughout Please. Though the title of the LP nods to Lerche’s nice-guy image, he’s not playing it safe.

Nor is he playing it nice, particularly on the lyrical front. When Lerche’s music gets to the matter of heartbreak, it rarely becomes emotionally piercing, preferring instead the language of euphemism and shrugging-it-off. On the aforementioned “Like Lazenby”, he confesses, “Like a tambourine / Driven by the beat / I’d forgot what time it was.” What that means is anyone’s mystery, but it’s clear he’s trying to apologize for something. Sometimes he can’t even commit to the separation itself, as in the case of Faces Down‘s “On and Off Again”: “I’ll come to leave a note / I’ll come to see you on and off again.” But with Please, things are different; just last year, following their collaboration on the film The Sleepwalker, Lerche and his wife Mona Fastvold divorced. “[It happened] very quickly. Of course, at the time, you feel like it’s out of the blue, but there’s always more to it than that,” he told Refinery29.

Please is Lerche’s most eclectic—and most successful—recording yet. But what unites these ten creative tracks into a cohesive whole are the lyrics; although largely written prior to the recording of the album, they all clearly reveal Lerche’s dealing with loss and heartbreak. In the previously quoted interview with Refinery29, he says, “So, I had already started this really open process, and I had a bunch of songs for that, some of them already recorded. But, then last summer, my marriage very briefly disintegrated… part of the shock was seeing how even some of the lyrics that I had written way before things were going wrong with the marriage, when I looked at them in retrospect, they had this foreshadowing effect in a sense.” Although not expressly written as a concept album, Please nonetheless bears a loose narrative: the ages-old tale of a relationship falling apart.

The jaunty “Bad Law”, Lerche’s best tune since Heartbeat Radio‘s title cut, kicks things off with real force. The key refrain of the song also highlights the question that lingers over the entirety of the album: “When crimes are passionate/Can love be separate?” When the song’s snappy, catchy guitar chords give way to a distorted, chaotic prechorus riff, the dissonance becomes clear: Lerche wants to believe that people can hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally, and nonetheless remain good. The staccato strums of “Crickets” follow this—there are those major seventh chords again—and Lerche once again begins to put the separation into words. “We’re singing a song for the crickets,” he muses: “Sound sleep so terribly loud / Foresaw the end of an era.” Here he tries to pass off the breakup as a series of mundane events, mirroring the boredom-signaling sound of crickets chirping.

With “Legends”, he attempts to overcome the weightiness of it all. “Now we’ll never know what legends we could be / Just me and you and you and me,” he yells in the song’s anthemic, spirited chorus. “Legends” manages to balance sounding triumphant while also recognizing that things are finally over. Despite his belief in the better of people (“Please disregard my naked faith”), he ultimately can’t help but get a bit cynical, as evidenced by the track’s final chorus: “Now we’ll never know what legends we could be / Just dumb-ass-you and dumb-ass-me.” Then, in the morose lounge jazz of the euphemistically titled “At Times We Live Alone”, he tries to pass off the events as just the ordinary flow of life: “At times we live alone in our love.” But Lerche’s optimism begins to wear even thinner, captured by what is his most profane chorus on record:

I wanna come home but I’m the guy you keep on trying to commit to a crime

Try ‘I love you’, try ‘get angry’

Try ‘go fuck off’, ‘call a friend’

Try again, till the end

With “Sentimentalist”, Please‘s literal and narrative centerpiece, it all comes undone. Right at the beginning of the song, Lerche points out a telling emotional contradiction:

For a self-professed lover, romanticist at heart

I wasted less to no time at all

Tying the knot

Dying to not rot

But I’m no sentimentalist

A romanticist, but not a sentimentalist? Clearly, Lerche is here beginning to let the rose-colored glasses slide off, as he begins to ask the questions that anyone is bound to ask after the dissolution of a long-term relationship: “Don’t I know you, my love?” “Don’t you know me, my love?” In a career full of impressive ballads, “Sentimentalist” is a standout—but it doesn’t stop at being just that. In its last minute, the song descends into a dizzying latticework of white noise, echoed vocals, and distorted guitar, reaching a crescendo right until…

…”Lucifer”, which stands both as Please‘s oddest moment and the most off-the-reservation thing Lerche has ever written. The track, despite its demonic appellation, is a jovial bit of pop buoyed by a delightful chorus. The striking contrast comes in the juxtaposition of the music and the lyrics, with the latter telling a sort of Alice in Wonderland-esque tale of Lerche’s descent into his own dark side. Well, almost his dark side; as Lerche cheekily admits, “Lucifer, I indulge the dusk at times / There is no finer sight than that of you tonight.” Lerche is too nice a guy to describe as having a “dark” side; “dusk” is sufficient an image to depict his inner demons. Yet “Lucifer” ends up not being about Lerche’s succumbing to his own inner darkness, but instead a rebuking of the titular fallen angel. “All I wanna do is strike a match, set fire to you,” he sings.

If “Lucifer” is the striking of the match, then “After the Exorcism” is the final purging of the malevolent inner spirits. With his voice sounding weak and bedraggled, as if he were hunched over a late-night lounge microphone, he begins the exorcism: “I taped her to my heart / An embankment of spare parts / Damn dam must burst.” The chorus that follows is utterly jarring, and kinda horrifying (as horrifying as a Lerche tune could be, that is); he sings and yells, “After the exorcism, baby / Foreign body / After the exorcism, baby / Foreign body”, letting his voice rise sharply out of key and tune. Following this unforgettable vocal turn, the track then dives straight into a breakdown, a sonic manifestation of the demons being forced out. Lerche’s dalliances with “Lucifer” and the subsequent exorcism aren’t long, but in eight collective minutes these two tracks form the total culmination of the story arc established by Please‘s first five songs. Were the record to have ended here, it would have left off at its most thrilling point.

But there are still three more numbers to go; and since a pretty intense catharsis just happened, it’s no surprise these final songs feel like a step towards recovery. “At a Loss for Words” feels almost like a flashback to just before the split, with Lerche singing, “Whatever we’re after / Things are gonna change / Whatever we’re after / Everything will change.” In these moments, he recalls all that’s come to pass, all the while reminding himself of the need to move forward. “Lucky Guy” then completes this thought, with Lerche pulling off a rare kind of lyrical feat: a love song for a breakup. (He told Refinery29 that it’s “probably the best love song [he’s] ever written.”) HIs attitude at this point is summed up by the main refrain: “Baby, you broke me / I am truly a lucky guy.” He still sounds defeated and broken by the ending of the relationship, but at the same time he try to resurrect his once vital optimism. Breakups suck, but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen for the better. But most importantly of all, the gifts that come from a long partnership don’t suddenly dissolve; the woman in this narrative clearly still means a great deal to Lerche. In his own beautifully tragic words, “I am such a lucky guy to have meant the world to you / Held on, to you, almost, held my own / I am such a lucky guy to have seen the world through you.” Maybe he still is a romanticist at heart.

Given the usually sunny disposition of his previous records, one would be forgiven in thinking that Lerche would try to end Please with a happy ending. In a refreshing turn of events, “Logging Off” caps things off on an ambivalent note, save for the herky-jerky saxophone break toward its conclusion. The lyrics here are the most ambiguous out of everything on Please. The final stanza, in particular, is ripe for interpretation:

Promised I would keep in touch

But I singled you out

Cause I needed someone

Then I looked in a mirror

Thought I saw a ghost

Looked for you in a mirror

But you were logging off

Much has come to pass for Lerche throughout the duration of Please, which gives some reason as to why he struggles to tie things all up in the conclusion, falling back into his habit for obscurant imagery. But perhaps that’s the necessary fate for the narrative of Please; though the lyrics throughout the LP rank among his best, the story they stitch is not linear, nor is it anything that points to a traditional resolution.

The prominent metaphor within “Logging Off” is that of a ghost: “Caught a glimpse in a mirror / When you didn’t see / Looked for you in a mirror / But you were next to me.” As the half-defeated, half-grateful tone of “Lucky Guy” already evinced, while Lerche is moving on, the ghosts of the relationship still linger with him. In the case of “Logging Off”, it appears that he is recounting the relationship’s final moments, remembering to the time when he sought out his loved one only to find that the lone real thing remaining of her was a phantom. The use of a mirror in the lyric is telling: he was looking for his love for her in himself, but was instead only able to see a ghost. Unable to see her standing next to him, he was therefore unable to see her how she really was.

The narrative I have described above is but one of what I expect to be many interpretations of Please. Because this record will forever be associated with Lerche’s divorce, its lyrics will by their nature entice people to read into them the details of what happened with Lerche and Fastvold. However, the lyrics of Please tell an intriguing tale on their own, regardless of context; however, it’s the context that makes them all the richer, as Lerche admits. Recording Please was, for him, “socially and musically such an important part of my dealing with everything.” It’s easy to see the truth of that admission; Please is an art-pop affair of the first order, a kind of recording that happens when someone knows just what his wheelhouse is and is able to experiment from within it in invigorating ways. Prior to this, it was apparent that Lerche could make a fine record; Heartbeat Radio and 2004’s Two Way Monologue are evidence enough. But with Please, he’s made something several cuts above either of those: a pop masterpiece, something that elevates his once seemingly unassertive style to a whole new level.

RATING 9 / 10