Other than just having the visceral (and valid!) response of “it’s catchy”, it can be hard to pin down why a debut like Norwegian singer Sigrid’s stands out amongst the crowd. It actually helps to look at other art forms: take theatre. It can be more of an actor’s medium because when you’re working with the same themes and tones using the same structures and tropes repeatedly (and, within a given production, the same script), the nuances and forces of the actual performer’s talents and psyches get highlighted.
Similarly, while you can find great singing in just about every genre that includes the human voice, there’s something about straightforward pop that sometimes feels more like a singers’ (or maybe performers’) genre than its cousins. When you’re the umpteenth singer who’s going to try and make something catchy about romance and relationships, whether it succeeds or fails starts feeling like it’s based more than you might think on those little grace notes of performance and personality. And while a singer doesn’t have to be as forceful as Sigrid is on the winning, aptly named Sucker Punch to succeed, those qualities certainly don’t hurt.
As with a lot of other qualities you could ascribe to art, describing a work as “effortful” doesn’t actually say anything positive or negative about it. It can certainly be used as a pejorative (maybe a record sounds like too much work was put into it, until the weight of all the parts smothered whatever originally existed in the songs), but Sucker Punch is a great example of how you might use the same word as a term of praise. Starting with the one-two of the title track and the despondently soaring “Mine Right Now”, these songs don’t take the fairly common tack of pretending that love or attraction makes anything easier.
Sigrid starts off with “freaking out ’cause I’m scared this might end bad” and immediately progresses to having to stop herself from picturing the end and affirming that the current situation is good even if it doesn’t wind up eternal. A song like “Mine Right Now” with that latter sentiment could have gone in a lot of directions; certainly, there are plenty of examples where they feel wistful, or plaintive, or even peacefully accepting. Sigrid, as is so often the case on these songs, goes for something scrappier and harder to nail – it’s both more and less joyous than it could have been.
Intentionally or not, the album is front-loaded with these songs where Sigrid is circling and throwing jabs at her own insecurities first and foremost. It’s not that other people aren’t very present in these songs, but despite her youth, the singer seems to have internalized the crucial lesson that it’s impossible to dictate other peoples’ emotions, not least because trying to figure out and express our own is a difficult enough task. When, on “Basic”, she asks “can I be basic with you?” it’s both a clever acknowledgment of how rarely the serious relationships in our lives are easy and simple and at the same time, it feels less like asking for permission and more like assessing her own psyche.
Of course, the emotional/psychological significance of these songs and performances would certainly be a lot less relevant if Sucker Punch didn’t have bangers, and from that stadium-sized title track (Sigrid is as much a belter as a scrapper, in a way where both qualities feel inextricable from the other) onwards the album is stuffed with them. Not everyone could make a rejection of settling like “Strangers”, an exuberant ode to spirits lifting like “Sight of You”, and a realization that a relationship is never going to work out like the loping “Business Dinners” feel like they all deserve to be big dancefloor/radio hits, but Sigrid has. (If anything, the consistent quality here despite leaving off one of her best pre-album singles, the precise uppercut of “High Five”, speaks to the deep bench she has.)
Even the two relatively quietest songs here, the interlude-ish “Level Up” and the closing piano ballad “Dynamite”, still channel the will and determination (and, yes, grace) the more overtly assertive songs display, the former explicitly positing that choosing to do the work and be present in a relationship is what marks success or failure. “Dynamite”, meanwhile, depicts the moment when, even if you do that work, you realize that two lives just aren’t going to intersect the way you want them to. It’s a breakup song with no rancor in its hard for either party; the refrain of “you’re as safe as a mountain / but know that I am dynamite” isn’t assigning blame, but also isn’t description anything that should or could be fixed. The blow lands harder because throughout Sucker Punch Sigrid has shown the worth and gratification in fighting for things; for herself, for connection, for other people.
It makes for a strong debut in more than one sense, and moments like “Dynamite” indicate that the strong personal stamp puts on her songs doesn’t equal out into being one-dimensional or un-self-aware. It’s a pretty killer combination.