On his debut album, Faces Down, newly minted Norwegian pop sensation Sondre Lerche comes off like a G-rated Serge Gainsbourg. Or a sweet-natured Beck. And sometimes like a Thom Yorke with a somewhat healthier sense of self-esteem. He's a songwriter who acknowledges the bleak and ugly in life, but goes unscarred by it, making music out of a sense of hope, not desperation: someone who can help us reclaim a little of our own overburdened innocence, with the aid of soft-lipped melodies that swim around your brain like so much champagne.
And, given that Lerche was a mere pip of 19 when he recorded Faces Down, maybe he's the wave of a happier future, a place where teenagers -- even in a land of endless winter nights -- work out their adolescent melancholy by daydreaming tropicalia beats, instead of spewing vitriol into microphones, smashing guitars, or (worst-case scenario) showing up for study hall locked and loaded. As Lerche sings on one irrepressible track on Faces Down, "Forget modern nature, this is how it's meant to be."
It takes a minute or so of conversation with Sondre Lerche (pronounced SAN-der LAYR-kuh) to appreciate that his insouciance is genuine.
"I've just been really open," Lerche replies when asked how he developed his broad and, shall we say, mature palette of influences. "From a young age, I was listening to everything, you know, everything I could get my hands on -- and then it was just a matter of following my enthusiasm, maybe towards its . . . essence. Or the essence of what triggers you as an artist."
As Lerche goes on to explain -- his careful English phrasing tempered by a Norwegian lilt that makes him seem pleasantly tipsy -- the process of discovering his "triggers" is akin to "figuring out who your real friends are."
"It's like, who do you like for good, honest reasons, and who likes you that way, versus the people who are just kind of around, you know?"
His comments, stripped of their musical context, could have come out of the mouth of any babe. But then, Lerche is a guy whose debut album went gold on his home turf and earned a spot on Rolling Stone's best-of list for 2002. So it doesn't come off as totally delusional when he goes on to say that his "best friends" while making Faces Down were a bevy of pop legends.
"I'd say Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, and Walter Becker . . ." He pauses for a chuckle. "Good friends to have, right?"
Okay, bristle if you will at the Steely Dan reference, but Lerche's take on Fagen and Becker's lite-rock sound is more left-leaning than he lets on. Much like fellow Norwegian up-and-comers Kings of Convenience and Royksopp, Lerche is formidably accomplished at lulling listeners into an aesthetic comfort zone, and then letting a little weirdness make a sneak attack. Slurred, dissonant guitars occasionally rip through daisy-scented verses. A sultry bass line works its way through cotton-candy synth, sublimating its way to your serotonin receptors. A couple of the more straightforward tracks, "Sleep on Needles" and "Side Two," suggest Jeff Buckley in hard-driving and deep dirge mode, respectively. Yet others share the multitextured, itchy fizz of High Llamas and Stereolab at their loungiest.
That textural approach is key to Lerche's sound, in fact; most of his songs derive their power and catchiness as much from a gathering tide of rhythms as from the caress of his gentle acoustic guitar chords.
"It's funny how beat-driven the album ended up," he remarks, "when I think that they all just started with me on the acoustic, trying to write something really simple, really direct. Then, once I had a basic song done," he continues, "I'd sit a little longer and play around with different rhythms, just to make it a bit more interesting.
"But when my producer, H.P. Gunderson, and I started to work on arrangements for a full band, a lot of the time the beats were what helped us reflect my solo sound onto a wide screen."
Lerche frequently credits longtime collaborator Gunderson -- who effectively plucked Lerche out of the pub gigs he was sneaking into -- with helping him hone his sound. But if the challenge for Lerche in recording Faces Down was remaking his "simple" folk songs for a full band (plus the odd orchestral or looped accompaniment), the challenge is the opposite on his current tour opening for Nada Surf.
"Well, I'm playing solo," Lerche says, "so it's been this interesting thing, to revisit all the songs and think about taking them back to their roots, you know, just me and my guitar. But it's good," he adds with typical aplomb. "Every night I go out, I approach the songs a little differently -- I'd go crazy if I didn't, you know, some of them are like three years old already -- and so every night, something different really works for me, or I hear something I maybe didn't know, or maybe forgot was there.
"I'm rediscovering my enthusiasms," he continues. "And since pretty soon I'm going to start making another record, I need that -- I need to remember what got me going in the first place, so I can figure out what paths I need to follow now."