On their first two EPs, Okey and Have Fun, Henriette Motzfeldt and Catharine Stoltenberg built a reputation for mixing elegant R&B harmonies with choppy, aggressive electronic grooves. This contrast is the centerpiece of all their music—even when the instrumentals are pointed and fractured, the vocals are generally soothing and understated. On their first full-length LP, Believer, Norwegian duo Smerz take this formula to new heights. Believer fuses the classical and operatic with hip hop, trance, techno, and just about everything left-of-leftfield. These days, “post-genre” pop records are a dime-a-dozen, but even in 2021, few artists are inhabiting the post-genre sound world of Believer. Even if not all the experiments land, the album showcases an impressive range of styles.
What sets Believer apart from the Nordic duo’s previous work is the heavy presence of classical music. Both Motzfeldt and Stoltenberg have backgrounds in classical, and this LP puts their baroque tendencies at the forefront. At times, the album has more in common with Franz Schubert than with Okey and Have Fun. “Versace Strings” sounds like it could’ve come from the 18th century as easily as the 21st, uniting gentle string and brass with Motzfeldt’s lilting, operatic vocals. “The Favourite” is another straight-classical moment, with its operatic vocals, mournful violins, and faintly-plucked harpsichord.
Elsewhere, the classical touches are used as a backdrop for more contemporary, modular leanings. In particular, Believer features more hip-hop influences than any previous Smerz release. On “Rain”, Stoltenberg raps in her native Norwegian over violins, cello, and a slow, lurching hip-hop groove. And on “Glassbord”, her sultry, understated rapping is in perfect tandem with the sleepy violins and off-kilter kick drums.
As a whole, however, Believer is far from sleepy. The album is darker and more dynamic than Smerz’s past material. The glistening chimes of the opener, “Gitariff”, give way to steely, cutthroat bass guitar. And on “I Don’t Talk About That Much”, Stoltenberg’s airy R&B vocals form a stark contrast to the song’s explosive, rapid-fire techno groove.
At times, though, the loud-quiet contrast that runs throughout the album gives it a disjointed, almost rushed quality. There are several tracks, such as “Temaer”, “Rap Interlude”, and “Sonette”, that verge on filler territory and feel thrown in to offset the LP’s gnarlier moments. After “I Don’t Talk About That Much’s” pulsating high, the directionless ambience of the closing track, “Hva Hvis”, feels like wallpaper music. It’s a nice comedown from the previous song, but it’s not particularly memorable.
Thankfully, Believer has enough sonic range and emotional heft to make up for its occasional misfires. The lyrics here may be the strongest point of all, especially on songs like “Max” and “Believer”, where Stoltenberg seems to sing about a codependent relationship on its last legs. On the title track, she raps: “Where did you go? / I lost you, oh baby / Is this goodbye? / You’re not here to tell me who I am and where I’ve been.” The speaker has become so dependent on their partner’s perspective that they cannot see themselves apart from it—not even when the relationship has (presumably) ended. They can only view their identity from the outside (“I see everything from the outside/ When did this start, seeing everything from the outside?”). The theme of a lopsided, disorienting relationship is one that runs throughout the album.
Both lyrically and sonically, Believer is a bold, risk-taking LP that charts a wild, uneven course through trance, classical, R&B, and hip-hop. Sometimes it conjures images of the snowy Norwegian countryside, and other times it drops you squarely on the dancefloor. Out via XL Recordings, the album is the most ambitious project yet from the fledgling duo.