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The best downtempo electronica albums trigger a scene in my mind as if from some austere European drama: It’s the gray morning after a night of revelry, and I’m being driven away in a cab from the apartment of a supermodel whom I’ll never see again. It’s a bummer, but it’s a cosmopolitan bummer—like a coke-burnt vignette from a Jay McInerney novel set in London, or maybe Oslo.
This is more than a cinematic vision; it’s been my litmus test for every downbeat, quasi-melancholy, quasi-euphoric song I’ve heard since I heard Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album nine years ago. To summon the scene, a song has to have warm analog-synth sounds over beats not quite bumping enough to bother a sensitive, hungover head. Vocals must be whispered or sung softly. Samples of old songs, rendered unrecognizable, should subliminally elicit nostalgia. The rare master practitioners of downtempo over the years have included Air, Boards of Canada, and, most recently, Röyksopp, whose debut record, 2001’s Melody A.M., seemed to revitalize the understated genre by conjuring mellow atmospheres without resorting to toothless, New Age– y pap. It’s telling that the record’s “Poor Leno” was featured on a 2005 British compilation called The Weekend. The three discs each had a party-down theme: “The Bar,” “The Club,” and “The Morning After.” Guess which one featured Röyksopp.
But it’s a brand new morning for the Norwegian duo of Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge; the first track of their follow-up, The Understanding, immediately indicates that the two are working with a bigger budget and on a larger sonic scale. The song begins with a simple minor-key piano line, then adds spare drum beats; spacey, whooshy keyboard; and, for the predictable crescendo, synthesized choral sounds. The dramatic swell is preposterously ornate—and preposterously obvious for a song already cursed with the name “Triumphant.” And it’s but the first example that the men of Röyksopp have become something they weren’t on their debut or in their successful string of subtle remixes (for the Streets, Kings of Convenience, and Coldplay): overbearing.
Further listening only proves that the ham-handed opener wasn’t an anomaly. One particularly cloyingly catchy song is the inspiring anthem “Only This Moment,” whose slick production, sunny vocals, and enthusiastic four-on-the-floor beat are at odds with the defeatist nature of the lyrics: “Deep down inside/I know our love will die.” “What Else Is There?” is an uninspired stab at a Europop hit featuring vocalist Karin Dreijer—one of three guests—whose voice is an uncanny mesh of Björk and Cyndi Lauper. You might think that a group whose debut had moved more than a million units worldwide would be able to resist the pressure to move to a more conventional sound, such as the one found on the Basement Jaxx’d “Circuit Breaker,” which sounds more like “The Night Before” than “The Morning After.”
And Röyksopp’s ratcheting up not only its sonic ambition but its thematic ambition, too: The Understanding’s songs are linked—it’s a breakup album. It’s admirable that the group wasn’t content to dutifully replicate the style that garnered it so much acclaim, but the uneven results show that the band should have hewed more closely to its comfort zone. Such lines as “I know about your little fling/How you hide your ring/You senseless thing—I’ll cut this string” from the R&B-esque “49%” ensure that The Understanding won’t be filed alongside George Jones’ The Battle and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in the Heartbreak Hall of Fame.
Indeed, the best songs on The Understanding continue in the ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mellow style of Melody A.M.: the bottom-heavy “Sombre Detune” and the laid-back “A Beautiful Day Without You,” which features such inscrutably mournful lines as “I know my tragedy/Notion took a bow/Still I wonder how/Morning after rain/Clear away the pain.” Occasionally, the duo’s vinyl nerdiness—first apparent in the debut’s Bacharach worship—shines through, and the results are a welcome relief. On “Dead to the World,” they deserve points for being able to slip British art-rockers Camel past the ears of an ol’ prog head. But a few expert samples aren’t enough to summon that early-morning continental ennui. Instead, all I get is some crass Eurotrash guy hitting on me in a cheesy Ibiza nightclub.
Windsor for the Derby has plenty of experience jumping subgenres, too—everything from slo-core to krautrock to electronica to its current flavor of Mancunian-tinged postrock. But the 10-year-old band’s eclecticism, unlike Röyksopp’s, can hardly be attributed to commercial reasons—even the moments when they are emulating New Order’s chart-toppers. Principal members Dan Matz and Jason McNeely’s pick-and-choose aesthetic ultimately means that there is no nice, cohesive Windsor sound to market.
Giving Up the Ghost continues in the same Notwist-y vein of blending rock, folk, and electronica hinted at in Windsor’s more consistent previous release, last year’s We Fight Til Death. The one-sheet for Ghost states that “Windsor’s music has always been a play on modern pop.” Perhaps it is this sense of “a play on”—which comes across as “subdued mimicry of”—that bogs down the first half. “Dirge for a Pack of Lies” opens the album with little more than an instrumental intro before Windsor quickly shifts into the organ-accompanied “Empathy for People Unknown,” which sounds like a minimalist take on the Flaming Lips sound. “Praise” takes off like a syncopated, double-time cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” before settling down to a breathy indie-dance-pop song accented by what sounds like a sedentary Bernard Sumner. Once the listener is finished spotting the references, most of the songs come off as unemotional and unmemorable.
The band briefly emerges from the mid-album doldrums—“Shadows,” “The Front,” “Giving Up”—for a garagey, almost feral stomper, “Gathering.” Unfortunately, the energy shown in that song only exemplifies what a drip the rest of Giving Up the Ghost is. On “The Light Is On,” Windsor sings about some Mornings After of its own: “Sifting through the stories/No telling what it takes/To get through the morning/The hardest part of the day.” But it’s difficult to judge how hard a morning can be if you have no idea what the hard night was all about. The boys in Röyksopp are singing about waking up with broken hearts. Who knows what lurks in the heart of Windsor?CP