Wednesday, March 13, 2019

album review: 'sucker punch' by sigrid

You know, sometimes I get the feeling that some of you pay a little too much attention to my content. And of course I'm not going to complain that much - appreciate the attention, turn on notifications and all that, would prefer to hear it from you than plenty of others - sometimes you're attentive enough that I wind up eating my words.

So Sigrid: young Norwegian pop singer-songwriter signed to Island, and much to my surprise, I had talked about her song 'Strangers' last year around this time on a slow week of Billboard BREAKDOWN as one of my World Hits. And I liked what I heard: some blaring synthpop with a fair bit of intensity and smart songwriting, it was the sort of song that was very easy for me to like as a critic, to the point where I said when her debut album dropped, I'd be happy to cover it... and then like most episodes of Billboard BREAKDOWN, I promptly forgot all about it until you guys started reminding me. And this isn't anything against her, let me stress this - I listen to a ton of music, stuff falls through the cracks, and for pop, you can definitely tell Sigrid is relying more on good writing and sharp composition than flash, and an unfortunate side effect of that is you can lose track of songs and artists. More to the point - and this is a warning sign that labels especially in the U.K. are trying to milk as many singles as possible without a ton of faith in the album - the first Sigrid songs packaged onto Sucker Punch were released as early as February 2017. That was concerning to me... but I did say I was going to cover this and I'm a man of my word, even as I'm still struggling to put my finger on why that Little Simz album isn't quite clicking the way it should. So okay, what did I get from Sucker Punch?

Honestly, this is the sort of project feels easier to talk about that I expected, mostly because Sigrid's approach to composition and making pop music is refined, but remarkably unpretentious. And more to the point, it feels big, a project that is firmly entrenched in its own humanity but doesn't feel the need to desaturate itself in reverb or feel 'small' - mostly because the emotions on display aren't small and while there is a "normality" to Sigrid's presentation, that doesn't mean it's not throwing four sheets to the wind across huge synthpop melodies. In a funny way it reminds a little of Jess Glynne's first album with the old-school melodic pop focus and touches of strings and slightly unconventional vocals, except swapping out the more delicate piano lines for hammering 80s synths - in other words, only ramping up the appeal for me, so yeah, I dug this a lot!

So let's start with Sigrid herself, and I've got to say: I think she fills a niche within mainstream pop rather effectively: a singer with a big voice and a lot of earnest frankness that might not bring a lot of subtlety to the table, but can temper it all with more insight than she'll get credit. But even if she doesn't have subtlety in the same way, she does have range: the rustiness she hits on her high and loud notes originally threw me off but when paired with the sharper, blaring synths adds more of the organic element that she needs, especially against production that could read as a little more straightforward or conventional. But even that does her and the production a bit of a disservice, because on the one hand I think she's definitely got the sense of tenderness and emotional honesty to knock a more vulnerable song like 'Dynamite' out of the park, and for another, there's some real risks being taken in the production I absolutely respect. Take songs like the title track and 'Business Dinners' with the massive oily synths and even heavier percussion that's taking cues from trap, but the more obvious influence is SOPHIE - and given that I like both songs it reminded me that if that last SOPHIE album was mixed and mastered properly I probably would have loved it. But Sigrid also has the raw presence and power to ride production that blares even louder, and while the big hooks of songs like the 80s-inspired 'Mine Right Now' with that pulsating low end and so much mid-range gloss, the sweeping strings-accented gloss of 'Don't Feel Like Crying' and 'Sight Of You', or the driving drums and rough multi-tracking behind 'Don't Kill My Vibe' might seem 'basic', I can't deny great instincts in melodic composition. Granted, when Sigrid herself titles a song 'Basic' - and I'm on the fence whether she's playing into self-awareness or just owning it - there's something I kind of respect about the populism of it all, especially when she doesn't compromise her personality to get there. That said, I do think there are a few moments where the tones or hooks don't quite work: I like 'Never Mine' but it feels a little like an underwritten CHVRCHES song that doesn't make the best use of her personality, and the tonal choices behind 'Level Up' and 'In Vain' feel a shade too cutesy but also oddly offkilter with the organ in the former and the backing vocals in the latter to mesh well. 

But again, those are minor nitpicks before we look at the songwriting... and here the thing: I think it's very easy to overthink what Sigrid is delivering here, because while there is some complexity if you read between the lines, most of these songs are painting in broad scopes. And here's my point: while I'm inclined to say you can bring intricacy in content to huge compositions, I'm not against broader content if it matches the presentation, and Sigrid approaches her material with such big emotionality that it does make sense. Take 'Mine Right Now', where her approach to overthinking her newfound love is to keep barreling forward and enjoying the moment - which is actually a similar approach to 'Don't Feel Like Crying', which instead of reconciling with the messy emotions that she knows won't really lead anywhere, she's going to keep on moving. Now if this seems reckless or lacking the foresight to slow down and think... well, yeah, but that's to be expected if you're young and living fast, and if she knows getting too deep into her own head will prevent her from growing, this might be what she needs. And I appreciate she's not exactly one to wallow in bullshit, from the unnecessary drama she wants to stifle on 'Level Up' to how 'Strangers' is aware of the allure of the relationship but is also aware it's built on lies and isn't really going to work. Hell, it's why the song 'Basic' works - she knows she'll make it complicated in ways she's not ready to process, so why not keep it easy - brusque but a little flighty, and it makes complete sense given her age and approach to pop in delivery or otherwise. It's one reason why 'Never Mine' and 'In Vain' feel so paralyzed and frustrated with the friendship and relationships that aren't moving or could backslide, but also why 'Dynamite' hits so hard: it shows the consequence of moving so fast in life and love while her partner is stable, tender because she wants it to hold but also there's a trace of melancholy in wishing they could run together, yet there's enough trust to make it work.

So to keep this short, I dig this album a fair bit, and it absolutely feels like a debut album designed to make a big splash for a wide audience... and hey, that's okay! There's a place for big kinetic pop albums with wide appeal, especially in a market where the sound is so desaturated and percussion heavy, and while you could make the argument that Sigrid is presenting a more accessible brand of what's been brewing in indie pop, I'd argue the craftsmanship does enough to elevate it. As of yet I think I'd be looking for a little more flair, and moments where the momentum sputters on this project are the weaker moments, but beyond that, this is an extremely solid 7/10 and absolutely recommended, especially if you're a sucker for synthpop that goes for broke. So yeah, turns out you guys ensuring I keep my word is a good thing, because this is some good stuff.

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