Sondre Lerche: Pleasure

Messy in its composition and its emotions, Pleasure finds Sondre Lerche creatively unhinged -- and what fun it is.
Sondre Lerche

Pleasure, like its predecessor, Please, presents Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche as he had never been heard before: a total mess. On the six studio LPs leading up to 2014’s Please, Lerche explored a range of emotions, but rarely did the music ever stray too far afield of the smooth jazzy-pop that he refined to perfection on albums like Heartbeat Radio (2009). The windy structure of Two Way Monologue‘s (2004) title track and the distorted punk chord progressions on Phantom Punch (2006) are notable instances of Lerche’s edgier compositional side, but even in those instances the songs sound undeniably contained, smoothed over with proficient production.

It wasn’t until Bootlegs, Lerche’s superb 2012 live LP, that he let the songs out of their cages. The cleanly produced, seventh chord-heavy “Airport Taxi Reception” off of Phantom Punch is a fine slice of pop on the original album, but it really comes to life on Bootlegs, where he hammers the bridge chords on his guitar with the grace of a sledgehammer. Lerche is as suave as songwriters come, which makes it all the more appealing when he chooses a roar over a neatly phrased melody.

If Bootlegs was a testament to his ability to cut loose in a live setting, Please showed that he can do the same in the studio. “Bad Law”, the record’s stellar lead single, begins as many Lerche tracks do: with catchy vocal phrasing and jazz chords building up to what one might expect to be a sing-along chorus. That chorus eventually comes, but not before the jazz chords get crushed by a tripwire bomb of distortion and dissonant chords, with drum hits flying like shrapnel. Recorded in the aftermath of his divorce from Mona Fastvold, Please attempts to filter the breakneck range of emotions that follow a long-term relationship coming to an end — or, as Lerche said of his marriage, a relationship “briefly disintegrating”. At times, Please‘s songs cleanly articulate the moods they’re expressing; “At a Loss for Words”, for instance, is a smooth yet effective expression of the inability to express oneself. However, in many, if not most, cases, Please catalogs the frustrations that refuse to be contained within a cleanly produced pop song. “After the Exorcism” collapses into a gut-punch of a bass drop; “At Times We Live Alone” gets its drive from sloppy jazz chords; and “Sentimentalist” ascends into a cloud of white noise and static.

Pleasure indulges similar cacophonies, though this time around it’s not because a relationship has ended. Rather, Lerche sounds like he’s exploring an unusual new world, or perhaps one he’s forgotten. It’s difficult to suppress the desire to read Pleasure as a sequel to Please, not just because it’s the record that succeeded it, but also because both albums use the same font on their sleeve art and are similarly adventurous in ways that go above and beyond Lerche’s achievements on his great early records, such as Two Way Monologue. With Pleasure, he reckons with two versions of himself: the once married and the newly single. On Please, his singleness has worn in, and gone are the days of earnest declarations of love, like the cloying “Words and Music” on Heartbeat Radio and Phantom Punch‘s charming acoustic number “After All”. Even when Lerche does profess love and attraction on Please, he sounds miles away from the object of his affection. The stunning closer, “Baby Come to Me”, has him repeat the titular chorus refrain while swimming in pools of reverb, his voice echoing in the distance between him and his beloved.

There is an existential angst underlying Pleasure, but musically this is conveyed not with dread but with dance. Opening tracks “Soft Feelings” and “I’m Always Watching You” kick things off with a one-two punch of glitzy ’80s synths and falsetto hooks. The music forms an upbeat contrast to the often dark emotional explorations: “I’m always watching”, Lerche sings on “I’m Always Watching You”: “Call it voyeurism or masochism / I’m always watching / Follow you down digital rabbit holes”. A four-to-the-floor beat and club-ready piano figure propel “Hello Stranger”, which has him musing, “Hello stranger, don’t let me stay too long / Goodbye pleasure, I must be getting on / Slip into my room and stop making sense / High on desire, is there anything else?” The lyrical and musical tension throughout Pleasure parallels what Soren Kierkegaard said of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni: the latter’s eponymous protagonist is a pure sensualist, constantly moving from one fulfillment of a desire to the next. To stop is to die. The music of Pleasure, the most danceable of Lerche’s career, manifests the numerous complicated desires of the single life. When he lingers in one emotion for too long, the music lifts him back up. After singing, “Made it out alive / But bleeding out into the blue” on the superlative “Bleeding Out into the Blue”, the post-chorus climaxes into a whirlwind of digital glitches and rapid snare hits. Pleasure‘s success comes in riding the tension between desire and achieving one’s desire, of the thrill of the chase doing its best to avoid the finality of fulfillment.

“I’m no sentimentalist”, he professes on Please‘s centerpiece “Sentimentalist”. Whatever Lerche can be said to be in the specific context of Pleasure, he’s a sensualist, luxuriating in a range of emotions spanning voyeuristic allure (“I’m Always Watching You”) to the rush of a kept secret (“I Know Something That’s Gonna Break Your Heart”). In this way, Pleasure is a fine sequel to Please; where the latter explores what it’s like to feel, the former is about feeling it all. This emotional complexity results in some of the sharpest tunes in Lerche’s career, including the instant classics “Bleeding Out into the Blue” and “Baby Come to Me”. Both of those songs also exemplify his knack for unusual melodies and chord progressions, owed in part to his admiration for songwriters like Cole Porter and Prefab Sprout‘s Paddy McAloon.

The weak moments on Pleasure are few. “Serenading in the Trenches”, with its sputtered beat and acoustic guitar strums, feels like a B-side of Please‘s “Crickets”, which utilizes the same sonic structure. Lerche sounds great accompanied only by his guitar, as he does in the opening minute of “Violent Game”, but the song outstays its welcome after it extends into an instrumental jam section in the latter half of its seven minutes. Yet in these moments — and with “Violent Game” in particular — his unkempt disposition is an undeniable part of Pleasure‘s appeal. Even the best pop of Lerche’s career pre-Please rarely strayed outside of the lines; with Please and now Pleasure, he prefers the vibrant color splatter of a Pollack. There’s no doubt that Pleasure is a bit of a mess, but it’s the kind of mess worth getting lost in.

RATING 8 / 10