Effortless is good, right? Better to have effortless talent than a hard-earned skill that you’ve got to drag through life like some Sisyphean boulder, surely? In pop music, effortless is a particularly prized (and overused) adjective. It has implications not only for the talent of the artist in question, but for the mechanics of the music itself – effortless pop has a way of seeping into the brain’s sonic recesses with melodies that snap into place within seconds, like old friends you’d forgotten you had.
Effortlessness has become something of a speciality for Swedish indie-poppers Shout Out Louds since they released their hook-laden debut album Howl Howl Gaff Gaff in 2003. While frontman Adam Olenius and his zippy cohorts have been casting their lines at the same pond (a little Belle and Sebastian here, a little New Pornographers there, a lot of The Cure throughout) for four albums now, they have, to a greater or lesser extent, coasted by on warm, all-embracing melodies, intuitive song structures and an undemanding lyrical sense of yearning that’s just subtle enough to avoid complicating their songs’ simple pleasures.
Fourth album Optica is probably Shout Out Louds’ most accomplished work to date. Recorded over 18 months and produced almost entirely by the band themselves, this is an incredibly polished set even by Olenius and co’s standards. They’ve never sounded shabby, but here every sprinkle of guitar or bassy groove shimmers with a high-definition gleam, and the well-judged deployment of strings, horns and woodwind creates space for satisfying expansion when the moment demands it.
It appears that Shout Out Louds have outgrown bum notes, and Optica’s runtime merrily hops from mid-tempo jangle-pop to thoughtful indie ennui and back again like the well-oiled machine that the band have become. Opening tracks ‘Sugar’ and ‘Illusions’ set the pace with irresistible harmonies and rhythms that are immediate without ever feeling hurried. The bucolic flute refrain on ‘Walking In Your Footsteps’, with its cheerful aura of meandering summer walks, serves a dual role as satisfying album centrepiece and all-consuming earworm.
It’s clear that Optica is a showcase for the band’s songwriting skills and pop nous; it’s also, at times, a pretty good example of the downside of “effortless”. With repeated listens, whole sections of the album glide past so effortlessly that they barely make an impression. Tracks like ‘Burn’ and ‘Where You Come In’ are pleasant, and lovingly put together, but in the absence of an emotional pull or any musical surprises, they can tend to lose their shine a little. Olenius’s vocal style, often very reminiscent of The Cure’s Robert Smith, doesn’t always help here. In fact, it’s something of a highlight when keyboardist Bebban Stenborg takes over lead vocals for twitchy stomper ‘Hermila’. Her glassy vocals are no more attention-grabbing, but on an album rather lacking in range and depth, the change is welcome.
Optica was clearly made with fun in mind, and in that sense it succeeds. It’s a first-play kind of album, that will sound best the first time you hear it. For fans of expertly crafted summer toe-tappers, its gifts are ample enough for a summer fling, although perhaps few will be looking for more.