How Röyksopp's 'Melody A.M.' Brought Electronica Into the Mainstream
With their debut, the Norwegian duo essentially provided the everyman's guide to electronic music.
Anniversaries are tricky, and music-related anniversaries even more so. On those special days that mark a certain period since a particular work had been released, should you decide to write about the work or its performer, you are bound to critically evaluate a pre-defined “sentiment" that the work has evoked in the collective consciousness, as well as critically assess the “changes" the work has caused in its respective aural category.
The Norwegian duo Röyksopp, and especially their remarkable debut album, Melody A.M., elude a solid definition and they cunningly thwart the mold for the kind of music they make. Each song off their first release is as diverse as a child's imagination, unmarred by the “sentiments" and “expectations" of the public. It's because of this incredible diversification of tunes on Melody A.M. that they, one could say inadvertently, brought a wide scope of electronic music into the mainstream in late 2001.
It's difficult to say when exactly electronic music penetrated the mainstream. While many predominantly rock acts flirted with the theremin and Mellotron during the '60s, the first consistent encounters between synthesizers and singles charts came in the late '70s and early '80s, with acts such as Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, and Depeche Mode defining a new music for the masses. The '90s were turbulent and changeable, and while many of the greatest names in electronic music emerged back then (think big beat, Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers; think Daft Punk and French house; think Aphex Twin as a synesthetic, timeless genius), occidental world cultures had been preoccupied with grunge, Britpop, industrial and other types of metal. Even the electro bands which managed to snatch a slice of MTV's rotation were, in essence, rebellious, aggressive and punk in their core.
Meanwhile, Norwegians were mostly unconcerned with making it big, as opposed to making art. Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge were a couple of young electronica enthusiasts from Tromsø, dabbling in music production as a part of the so-called “Bergen scene", of which later on they would become ringleaders. The mid-to-late '90s saw a number of small-time Norwegian acts make a name for themselves in the local musical landscape by signing with the small record label Tellé Records. While experimentation was a large part of music everywhere, the common denominator for nearly all acts associated with Tellé was a melancholic stillness, a low-key Nordic sound which would've gone seamlessly with the vast, cold landscapes, and opaque skies. Amid this artistic cluster, which also spawned Kings of Convenience and Erlend Øye, Melody A.M. was born.
Released in September 2001 by independent London record label Wall of Sound, Melody A.M. was a strange beast, a concoction of a variety of tunes Röyksopp have cooked in the years before. With a cover that consisted mostly of an image of the same opaque sky mentioned a paragraph ago, it was “supposed" to be another slow Nordic “downer", an inaccessible, experimental artistic expression. Hilariously, exactly the opposite proved to be true. Melody A.M. was and is an unprecedentedly listenable album, a ten-song marvel which somehow incorporated myriad genre-bending ideas Bruntland and Berge had been developing for years, without sounding pretentious or even slightly overwhelming.
Disco, lo-fi, house, dance, minimalistic, ambient, synth pop, even elements of jazz and rock; all of it is used interchangeably here and with aplomb. “So Easy", originally released in 1999, is the sombre intro to the alternatingly downtempo and uplifting release, foreshadowing the duo's masterful use of samples from old songs (in this case, the '60s “Blue on Blue"). “Eple", one of my favorite electro tunes of the past 20 years, is a jittery synth pop delight, even (or especially) if it's a steroid-fueled reimagining of Bob James' “You're as Right as Rain" from 1975. “Sparks" brings the haziness and the mellow vocals of Anneli Drecker, and instantly evokes an adopted child of Air's Moon Safari.
“In Space" could well be a lush soundtrack to an interstellar voyage, while “Poor Leno", the album's most successful single, sees the band in their “Nordic depressive" mode, recanting the story of a trapped and caged boy, voiced by Erlend Øye. “A Higher Place" sounds like an analog-enhanced jingle for a weekend afternoon talk show, and it is an unlikely precursor to “Röyksopp's Night Out", the album's most aggressively manic track, and a great foreshadowing of what the band would become in the years afterwards.
“Remind Me", an instant MTV darling, again sung by Øye, is the antithesis of the former tune, an acid house melody ample with dreamy musings on the modern life. “She's So" brings the jazz and blues, with a sample from "Love in Space" by Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra. The closer, “40 Years Back Home", is the most hermetic and experimental tune on the album, a lo-fi mesh of sounds one would normally use in an outro, although probably not all at once.
Melody A.M. was and still is the everyman's guide to electronic music, condensed into a sonically superior 46 minutes. Brilliantly produced by two men who had already learned their production tools inside and out during the '90s, its masterful permeation of membranes of listeners who were only laterally familiar with the notion of “electronic" until then, is a marvel.
Even with the amazing differences between its tracks, perhaps the greatest achievement of Melody A.M. as an album and not a cultural landmark, is that none of the highly varied tunes sounds out of place. Everything on there meshes so well that it is, to this day, a challenge not to listen to the entire album at once. What better testament to a whole range of tunes than to say that they stood the test of time as a coherent whole while still filling the hours of appreciative listeners' time, in the office, at home, in a café or even in a club?
It wasn't long before mainstream critics, audiences and marketers recognized Melody A.M.'s undeniable potential. The UK media had gone berserk over the album; in the past 15 years, it was included on The Guardian's series of the 1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die. The brilliant infographic “day in the life" video for “Remind Me" won the 2002 MTV Europe Music Award for Best Video.
Several of the album's songs were quickly picked up for TV ads and even computer games. “Remind Me" even brought the band some fame in America, after it had been featured in a GEICO ad. “So Easy" had fared even better, after none other than T-Mobile used it in a launch advert. And “Eple"? Sure enough, it was licensed by Apple. Kudos to “Sparks" for making it to Six Feet Under. Soon the global public was theirs to keep impressing.
Röyksopp's style has changed, perhaps even dramatically, since the release of their debut. The duo moved on to moodier and heavier tunes, laced with longing Nordic vocals, and their subsequent six releases have been described as downbeat heaven. This isn't a bad thing; on the contrary, Röyksopp have won their place as a prominent name on the global electronic scene, and have managed to pass their idiosyncratic Nordic style as naturalized MTV content. “Something in My Heart" featuring Jamie XX, and “Monument" featuring Robyn, paved a new way for lo-fi singles with as much substance as style. The band have even performed covers of Depeche Mode's old singles on Norwegian national TV.
Over the years, though, Röyksopp's work has unequivocally marked a great shift to a new gear for moody electronic rhythms. However, precisely because of all this, 15 years on, it remains astonishing just how different Melody A.M. is from everything else they have created. At once earnest and playful, dangerously methodical and abstract, conceptually stern and melodically flexible, it's a prime example of how the pure mind of an artistic newcomer truly can lead to a tectonic shift for an entire genre and open new doors for its successors.