By painting their already imaginative songs with dazzling new colors, Architecture in Helsinki are quietly reinventing the pop song.
Baby when we get older
We don't have to get colder.
-- Architecture in Helsinki, "In Case We Die (Parts 1-4)"
Early in the morning, while beginning the hour-long drive to my 8-5 job, hearing Architecture in Helsinki's "The Owls Go" play on the usually dull college radio station was enough to change the color of my day completely. That song, off the Australian indie-pop group's 1993 debut album Fingers Crossed, is like a fountain of youth: an exuberant cross between a campfire song and a nursery rhyme, with thumb piano, melodica, and trombone. But Cameron Bird, a sensitive soul with an unusual voice, sings the song like his heart is full of hurt, and a few of the band's female members chime in with sweetly comforting and at the same time strange backing vocals about "a knife serrated". The song kicks off with a whispered countdown, and it feels like someone's secret party, like somewhere there is a place where outcasts from mainstream society make strange and beautiful noises with the glee of children, without caring how much money the music is worth. Even the grayest Michigan sky looked sunny with that song playing over the car stereo, even the most tedious job could fade away from memory quickly...
The bulk of Fingers Crossed was less spunky, more gentle than "The Owls Go", yet just as inventive. The music - driven by synthesizers, acoustic guitars, assorted percussion, and a choir of voices - fell somewhere between quiet folk, '50s pop, '80 new wave, the output of a runaway marching band, and a musical interpretation of a Dr. Seuss book. The eight musicians and their guests played with the freedom of children who haven't yet learned how they're supposed to behave. Yet it was seriously creative music, with lyrics that weren't just joyous but also strange and sad and enigmatic.
Still, Fingers Crossed was too delicate and sweet (too "twee") for the tastes of contemporary tastemakers. It was easy for some to dismiss the music as insubstantial, because Architecture in Helsinki weren't grabbing you by your collar or yelling in your ears. With their audacious, rambunctious second album, they've ensured that people will pay attention. Love it or hate it, In Case We Die is an album that's not easy to ignore.
On In Case We Die, Architecture in Helsinki have taken each element of their music and amplified it. On every song they sound driven to push their music to its furthest logical extremes - to make the theatrical more theatrical, the fanciful more fanciful, the sad sadder - and embrace whatever the result is. These songs are bigger, louder, and wilder, with more dramatic flourishes, more genre-crossing, more time changes, more convergences of a junkyard's full of diverse musical instruments, more catchy hooks, more songs subdivided into parts like mini-musicals, more moments where they yell out like giddy schoolchildren, and more songs where they sound like, to quote Smokey Robinson, they've got to dance to keep from crying.
The music on In Case We Die is, on the surface, undeniably child-like. The lyrics hover near the realm of nonsense, the overall sound is bright and sunny, and the musicians play a cornucopia of instruments - synthesizers, guitars, horns, strings, percussion, samplers, "hand and power tools", etc. - as if they're still in awe of the very concept of sound, in love with the fact that you can pick something up and make a noise with it.
Yet there's a surprising tone of somberness to the album too. For every propulsive drum or aggressively happy chant there's a sad segue or tender guitar playing. And from the album's first sounds - funeral bells ringing - on to its last, the theme of human mortality is everywhere. With references to reincarnation, cemeteries, guns, and ghosts, nearly every song contains a reminder that we can die at any time. This gives even the giddiest of songs a bittersweet tone, expressing the feeling that we need to dance and sing and love and mess around with crazy instruments now, because it might be the last chance we have.
In Case We Die starts off sounding much like Fingers Crossed, but performed with more urgency: faster, tougher, and with a dose of lusty, animalistic energy. By the fourth song, they're really getting down to business, shaking up their already eclectic music even more. "Wishbone" has both a goofy Grease-like motion to it and melancholy strings, but also the tendency to fade into a tropical daze before bouncing back into step. As the album progresses, more attention is paid to groove and beat, to getting you to dance your ass off like the world's about to end. On "Do the Whirlwind", for example, the band sounds like a 21st century Tom Tom Club, but with church choir tendencies. In Case We Die is a party album, though depending on how open-minded your guests are, it could be eccentric enough to drive half the people at your party absolutely batty.
Throughout In Case We Die, the simplest songs have the tendency to explode with color and light. Like Of Montreal, Belle and Sebastian (these days), Bearsuit, P:ano, Tilly and the Wall, and others, Architecture in Helsinki are sexing up pretty pop songs and taking them to a new level. They're annihilating expectations of "indie-pop" as a style of music, confounding the notion that sweet and sensitive pop songs are necessarily small and insubstantial. They're proving that a gentle, humble little pop song can also be surprising, intricate, and as big and bright as a golden-age Hollywood epic.
In the liner notes, the band acknowledges that they don't know how to define what they're doing by conventional standards, thanking the album's contributors for "helping us make it what it is. Whatever that may be..." The ambiguity in their intentions is perhaps what makes them so easily erase the lines between genres, and jump over boundaries. It's like they're keeping themselves from being restrained by any notions of what a pop song should sound like. That freedom to push things to extremes is what makes In Case We Die such a thrill ride. They're taking pop music in new directions by letting their own creative impulses take hold.
On In Case We Die Architecture in Helsinki are also using their music to gently demolish the dividing line between childhood and adulthood. The sort of free imagination displayed on these songs - plus the basic sound of their music overall - fits more with societal notions of childhood than adulthood. Yet the emotional weight inherent in the album's themes of life and death, the imaginative genre-crossing, and the complicated song structures resist the notion that this music is childish, and therefore insignificant by adult standards. This music is childish and significant. Like most of the best artists, they understand what's lost in 'growing up', and do their best to keep it.