Originality and Derivation
by John Amen
Sondre Lerche’s Pleasure
Sondre Lerche’s 2002 debut, Faces Down, and 2004 follow-up, Two Way Monologue, displayed his distinct skill for crafting pop hooks, frequently exhibiting the influence of Paul McCartney (Re: melody) and Nick Drake (Re: atmospherics). His 2006 release, Duper Sessions, highlighted an appreciation for jazzier instrumentation, the show-tune songbook, and the Broadway musical. Please (2014) featured Lerche mining territories reminiscent of Dan Bejar, who consistently combines Dylanesque-cum-Dadaistic lyricism with production values that satirize the recording techniques of the 1980s. Lerche’s latest album, Pleasure, is a plunge into and sincere absorption of such ’80s values, though listening repeatedly to these tracks, a listener can’t help but consider that David Bowie and Prince, whose influences are clear on Pleasure, have probably served as touchstones for Lerche throughout his career.
Pleasure’s first track, “Soft Feelings,” opens with a staccato rhythm that would be appropriate in a Fixx or Cars song, also sporting the performative elements and danceable sounds of ’70s disco (Saturday Night Fever) and ’80s era Brit-pop (Tears for Fears, Duran Duran), the Norwegian-born singer sporting a British (i.e., Bowie-ish) accent. The second track reminds one, rhythmically and melodically, of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” though the vocal tones are more reminiscent of Joshua Tree-era Bono. “I’m always watching, and I can’t be with you,” Lerche sings. “I’m always watching / call it voyeurism or masochism.”
With Pleasure, Lerche’s adoption of a chorus-y and compressed synth mix on the one hand detracts from his vocals, his articulations foundering in the swirly and often impenetrable soundscapes. On the other hand, his use of diaristic lyrics in combination with the depersonalizing aspects of the high-production mix results in a complex and evocative layering of sounds. For example, the jarring but synth-y wash in the opening of “I Know Something That’s Gonna Break Your Heart” segues into the whispery vocals, creating a memorable contrast. “I hate to tell you / but I’m going to fail you,” Lerche sings, echoing nuances of Gotye on “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
“I live upstairs from you, I just became your neighbor,” Lerche creepily sings on “Siamese Twins,” lyrically referencing Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” but more generally conjuring the above mentioned Prince à la Purple Rain’s “Darling Nikki.” “Siamese Twins” romanticizes a neighbor into a fetish object (sexualized or not; not actually being even creepier—indeed, a fundamental difference here is that Prince’s take is, by today’s standards, almost quaintly über-sexual, while Lerche comes off as modishly asexual). The sinister implications contrast the chorus-y mix and its sanitizing or inoculating effect.
While the production values used throughout Pleasure create a dream-pop ambience that ultimately seduces the listener (at least this listener), the approach is, though trendy, still oddly anachronistic. There’s occasionally a lack of tangible presence, as in “Bleeding Out into the Blue,” which revisits Bejar territory, melodically and lyrically; though one can’t help but be struck by a certain inaccessibility—due, again, to the use of effects that tamp and suppress the sounds and vocal, creating a barrier of saccharine atmospherics. That said, just when a listener feels that the album is lapsing into the soporific, Lerche offers an instrumental segment replete with amphetamine dynamics or a compelling lyric, as in “Reminisce”: “I want to love you like a lover should / every time we say goodbye.” And: “I don’t want to reenact the glories of the past.”
Re: “the glories of the past,” while Pleasure is a consummate study of ’80s-era musicality, it’s also replete with a self-deprecating swagger and commentaries grounded in contemporary experience. While some listeners will find Lerche’s use of chorus, reverb, and compression off-putting, at least after five or six tracks, others will find it an intriguing experiment in aural paradox, melancholic tones, and revealing lyrics, contextualized within a highly polished and frequently anonymizing mix.
But then, reconciling and establishing an organic balance between opposites is rapidly becoming the chief aesthetic objective of contemporary art. Ditto a balance between originality and derivation. Musical acts as diverse as Ryan Adams, Yeasayer, Preoccupations, Dawes, Lana Del Rey, and Arcade Fire are attempting to forge original approaches while drawing from and synthesizing a plethora of influences. Being originally derivative or derivatively original is a driving criterion for artists working in a variety of mediums. In this way, the West is shifting toward an orientation that has traditionally been more of an eastern practice: seminality via simulation. Lerche joins his contemporaries in this pursuit. Pleasure is both an emulation of ’80s-era techniques and aesthetics, and a document that strives to illustrate one version of what it’s like to be alive in 2017.
John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, including strange theater (New York Quarterly Books, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. He is co-author, with Daniel Y. Harris, of The New Arcana. His latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm, work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award, was released by New York Quarterly Books in 2017 and was a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award. His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He is a Staff Reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.