What does a song sound like when it’s crafted from pure carbonation, from fizz per se, unadulterated by liquid, popping off of a nu-disco surface that has zero depth and no need for it? Ask “No Words”, which probably knows better than any other song in recent memory. The calling card from Swedish soul-pop purveyor Erik Hassle is a compact burst of unyielding effervescence — a strut with infinite legs, a pair of feet that, not unlike Michael Jackson’s in the video for “Billie Jean”, light up the earth they walk upon — that says everything you need to know about the artist who made it. Here’s a conformist who’s well aware of how his slick pop-R&B stacks up against the status quo, one who sees no need to break from convention or to look beyond it. In other words, the singer behind “No Words” is no tastemaker, but he’s got a sense of taste so omnivorous and sharp that, listening, being a tastemaker seems to lose its appeal.
On Innocence Lost, his fourth studio effort overall, Hassle brings out all the bells, whistles, smoke, and mirrors he can to turn this sense of taste into pop that’s seemingly sculpted from the mortar that holds the Hot 100 together. When he succeeds, he makes glitzy, look-what-I-can-do confections that are hard to dislike; when he doesn’t, he crashes and burns, leaving holes in an LP that can’t support them.
“This is really me. I hope that comes through and it can mean something to someone else,” Hassle said in a statement about the record. What does it mean when an artist has to assert his individuality, to say “this is really me”, when this should be obvious on the record itself? It means that there isn’t much of this individuality to hear in the first place. However, while Hassle unashamedly borrows sonic bric-a-brac from the likes of Drake, the 1975, Chris Brown, and the Neighbourhood, not to mention a legion of other up-and-comers vying for the same primetime radio spots he is, you can hear him straining to reach for something more. What exactly that “more” is, though, he’s yet to figure out.
Throughout Innocence Lost, this straining is at its most visible in Hassle’s voice, and this voice is at its most visible during the peppy follow-up to “No Words”, “Pathetic”. In the verse, he glides above a sinuous shuffle of snaps and static electricity, sounding precisely like what you would expect the singer of a song called “Pathetic” to sound like. He is wounded, melodramatic, begging for empathy and an avowal — by you, by his lover, by the millions of people tuning into the radio he hopes to conquer — that the pain he feels is authentic. But it’s the chorus where this voice persuades you that this is the case. “I’m so emotionally needy, baby / Oh, I’m hoping no one can see me, baby,” he sings, lifting the syllables into a falsetto as fragile as the soul that’s belting it out, before making the confession his voice has already wordlessly intimated to us: “You got me so pathetic.”
“Missing You”, likewise, leans on a generic pop-R&B template but rises above mere mediocrity thanks to Hassle’s vocal earnestness. The sentiment the song captures is simple — the delirium of grasping for flesh that isn’t there, that might never be — but Hassle manages to transmute it into an epic of reduplicated wails and life-or-death pathos; that’s no small feat. “Talk About It”, which features Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, also elevates a rudimentary emotional situation into something more grandiose and heart-stopping. It tells a story you’ve heard before — a story about a boy, about a girl, about this boy misinterpreting things, about this girl making it hard for him not to — but somehow it seems new. “Baby!”, he yelps to start the chorus, sounding, in just two syllables, more pathetic than he ever did in the song that took that descriptor as its title.
Those are the highlights. What surrounds them sounds worse than filler: namely, like an attempt to make every track on the LP a single and not quite pulling it off. “Innocence Lost”, for instance, trips itself with horns that seem just as desperate as they do awkward. Then, there’s “TKO”, which somehow manages to be worse than the Justin Timberlake single of the same name from The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2. These misfires notwithstanding, one gets the sense that Hassle really does know how to make good music; it’ll just take a bit more time, a bit more risks taken and lessons learned, for him to fill an entire album with it.