Shout Out Louds – Optica
Merge Records 2013
Our late, great Robin Smith called Our Ill Wills “a collection of songs that captured whatever they wanted to capture in their fleeting minutes,” an album “sung delicately and beautifully” and “a sugar hit even at its saddest,” and that’s about as compelling a summary of Shout Out Louds’ wistful, sunset-streaked romanticism as I could ever hope to muster. Smith called them cute and irrelevant, too, but mixed messages aside, Our Ill Wills was a highpoint for Swedish indie pop, for a genre and culture that dominated the blogosphere back when getting a song on an iPod commercial meant something. The craftsmanship and melodicism that made Shout Out Louds the Great Northern Hope has never really abandoned them, but the emotional nakedness that singer Adam Olenius used to drag us through the dirt with him appeared to be left out in the cold after “Hard Rain” ended with thunder in 2007. That’s a shame, too – their last effort, Work, was a pristine, efficient model of indie pop, sparkling in its harmonies and immediate in its hooks but with a production that was cold to the touch. It was the wrong kind of icy northern beauty.
Shout Out Louds’ core aesthetic has always been wrapping up the heartbreak and the grief and the nostalgia, all those pesky human frailties, around a wonderfully warm tapestry of bright, impeccably produced pop. It helps that Olenius yips like the Swedish Robert Smith, but the weight of the world – or the weight of the collective critical shrug that greeted Work – has had its effect. That spirited yelp is more controlled and conversational, a happy voice only on its face but still game; the lilting, Shins-y “Sugar” and the measured disco-rock of “Illusions” start Optica off on the right clog. Even when Olenius is little more than a withdrawn mumble on “Glasgow,” the band’s golden ear for production pays off, bringing in the lovely Bebban Stenborg for some backing vocals that shoots the melancholia through with a vibrant bit of whimsy. Despite doubling down on an electronic sound that pays homage to New Order and washed-out ‘80s dance, Optica feels more lived-in than its uber-professional predecessor, earnest and inviting despite the voluminous, cold soundscapes it inhabits. Glacial first single “Blue Ice” has no right to sound as interesting as it is – a warmed over midtempo ballad, one of many that swoon along to expansive synths and indulge in lyrics cribbed from your high school’s worst closeted romantic – but that lush production is a cosmic joy, painted in the same glorious Technicolor swathes the band’s video for it evokes.
The choruses are huge, the production immaculate, the vocal performances an adequately torn mix of regret and heartbreak and sugary climaxes, yet Optica never really latches on in any meaningful way. The closest it comes is when dissonance threatens to break through and rip that carefully woven tapestry just a little. Stenborg’s brisk turn on the creepy “Hermila,” the hot-blooded “14th of July,” and the antagonistic guitar squawks and discordant synths that twist through closer “Destroy” like the ghost in the machine all stand out mainly because they demand the facade let its guard down for a second, to let those emotional cracks reveal themselves in more than just the lyrics. It’s a paradoxical situation for Shout Out Louds – the better they’ve gotten at refining their craft, at writing the perfect chorus and combining them seamlessly with organic, vivid sonics, the further away they’ve gotten from the wounded empathy that drove their earlier records. At least ice burns. Optica too often feels like nothing at all.
Shout Out Louds took their time with these songs, recording for about 1.5 years in a small Stockholm studio and producing themselves for the first time with help from Johannes Berglund. A theme emerged and Optica was born, an album celebrating color and light from a band confident in its sound.