erasing clouds

Northern Portrait, Criminal Art Lovers

review by dave heaton

Rolling Stone named “Crazy” the best song of the 00s. That was the 2006 Gnarls Barkley hit, not the 2009 single of the same name from the Danish indie-pop group Northern Portrait, but sometimes it’s nice to imagine alternate versions of history. I wouldn’t call Northern Portrait’s “Crazy” the song of the decade exactly, but it is a great song, sounding just as nice now, as part of their debut album Criminal Art Lovers, as it did when I first heard it. Like the more famous “Crazy”, it depicts the psyche of someone conflicted and confused – in other words, our collective psyche so much of the time – and also manages to crack jokes (“I could tell you baby / but then I’d have to kill you right away”), make potential political statements (with its references to shaking things up, and “steal(ing) the code”, hacker-like), and be a catchy tune with a wealth of jingle-jangle guitars.

The note of questioning and defiance in that song lurks throughout the album, often tied closely to a sense of the bittersweet and just as closely to the band’s heavy debut to the Smiths. Besides the musical similarity (and, especially, vocal), the bands share an interest in power dynamics, among people as much as structures, a sense of drama in their presentation, and a way of capturing a particular moment vividly, like on “That’s When My Headaches Begin”, where the general heaviness of the album turns to flight. It builds in a transcendent way at that point where a moment of deception and regret leads to our singer closing his eyes and drifting away, still hyper-aware of his surroundings while trying to escape them. At the song’s height, he goes through a litany of ‘listen’ lines: “listen to the sea as it kisses the shore / like so many million times before / listen to the hand that slams the door / and someone’s screaming ‘no more’.” The line “Listen to the songs that make you wanna cry” tells part of where the band is coming from: the art of capturing that sad feeling through storytelling in song.

Another striking song of a similar bent is “The Operation Worked But the Patient Died”. Songs like this give the album a general area of the serious, but with a pointed aim and dramatic sweep. But like “Crazy” there are other songs that tackle the same ideas with a musically lighter stride and a sense of humor, like “When Goodness Fails”, where he declares “I have come to disappoint you”, and the closing track, “New Favorite Moment”, possibly my favorite song here. It is a somewhat more hopeful way to end the album, in spirit at least, though it also plays as a clever dig at our chronicle-everything-immediately culture, imaging people making lists of their favorite seconds as they tick away, continually updating their lists.


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