Within the general genre of pop music there exists a narrow niche distinguished by certain traits in both the artists that populate it and the audiences who cultivate it. One of the new artists to most distinctly place themselves in this rather exclusive environ, associated with e.g. Elvis Costello, is young Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche.
Already his 2001 debut album Faces Down won him unexpected international attention, especially so in America where he was embraced by many of the more highbrow and demanding camps of criticism and artistic consumption.
Following his remarkable age-nineteen entry onto the stage of international music expectations were high regarding his second album, last year’s Two Way Monologue.
These were more than met and Lerche’s position in America has been consolidated, entailing prestigious venues and tours, a high profile in selected media as well as Lerche himself choosing to relocate in Brooklyn.
Lerche’s success is huge, reflecting on his age and his hitherto base in semi-provincial Bergen Norway. But compared to the stars of pop music as such it is barely measurable. For it is only within certain camps, certain media and among a specific audience that he is such a rising star. And this is a function of the somewhat exclusive genre to which he belongs.
So what is this genre, this niche within pop music? What marks its artists and its audience? Wherein resides the attraction? And what are the critics’ understanding of these questions?
Looking at the artists that might be said to belong to the genre there seems to be criteria in force that are other and more advanced than the mechanisms that rule pop music in general. Apparently there exists a threshold of admittance that can only be overleapt by a very specific form of musicality and mood of expression. This mood and musicality can, it seems, not be gauged or analysed in musical terms alone, for it concerns not just the expression but also its subject matter.
Perhaps the most pointed description, and one echoed by many critics, is that the music manifests a kind of maturity, i.e. that it is an expression which in a way has “overcome” all great emotional oscillations and feels exactly that: a sort of distancing.
One can perhaps say that it is a matter of forging a relaxed simplicity out of a great complexity.
In this way the traits that define the genre of music and musicians we are discussing in many ways seem to double the (good) experience of becoming grown, which is also about mastering life’s great complexity and/by “taking it as easy as you can”
The music of artists such as Elvis Costello, Burt Bacharach, and also Lerche, is not universal by being “above all exclusivity” like the Beatles, nor is it simply catchy, summery, exiting, haunting, longing, sad, beautiful or any other quality that caters to generalities of human emotion. Rather, it seems this kind of expression is inhabited with a manner of disinterest, disengagement, and also serenity, that describes a more specific experience or set of experiences belonging exclusively to maturity. (A phenomenon not necessarily defined by age)
Certain recurring traits permeate the whole experience of Lerche’s art. These traits are mirrored in extra-musical aspects: videos, appearance on stage and in the lyrics, but most of all the music itself is marked by a very distinct mood. This mood is one of an “appeased distance” to all things, as if there were a principal cleavage between the mind and its desire. As Rolling Stone Magazine put it: (He is) “Singing as if smiling through his heart’s mishaps”
Lerche’s is a cool-radiant, metallic, mirror-glass kind of aesthetic which is beautiful and true, but not (so much) dear and warming. It is relaxed, full of confidence and mastery, but also irony and reticence. It is a kind of expression that withdraws from intimacy; it is elusive in terms of emotion because it will never allow you the experience of recognizing and appropriating a certain emotion and thus losing yourself in it. The mood belongs more to the mind than to the heart and body, and critics have labelled Lerche “The thinking person’s pop star”
As such the experience is somewhat demanding, but these aspects of it accord with the singular thing that the music seems to expresses, viz serenity in face of complexity.
Lerche’s effortless navigation through his often intricate compositions, and his distanced, modest and slightly ironic attitude, for this critic at least, mirrors the experience of realising that only by not expecting too much will you ever be able to find contention. Many critics have pointed out an affinity with jazz –deeper than the purely musical one- in relation to this serene elusiveness that hovers around Lerche and inhabits his music.
That a young man of just 22 can be in possession of such subtle sagacity and such a refined language to express it is surprising. But maybe only so if one over-interprets and exaggerates the notion of music always meaning and expressing something else. If taken simply as a rare musical talent, Lerche’s uniqueness lies in finding his peers in an altogether different category of age and experience.