Earlier this decade Röyksopp didn’t suck by going hard with the Giorgio Moroder hamminess and slipping in some Chic while your eardrums did whatever the opposite of burst is. Their hit debut Melody AM glimmered like a sea of fish scales; it’s where downtempo went to drown. Later, with The Understanding, the Norwegian duo experimented with harder dance textures to no avail, since then they’ve been largely incognito. They didn’t exactly break the surface making Junior, which according to one-half of Röyksopp, was like “mining in the mountains”—it’s true they buried themselves in a wooded area without access to high-speed Internet or running water. Okay, so it’s not completely true. Anyway whatever the degree of sequestration it resulted in their best, most telling work yet, lousy with references, emotive edges, and the strange energy Melody AM channeled and The Understanding fully forgot. Foregoing all the catalogue chillax, Junior contains a low-running charge like a finely-fingered scalp. Little forearm hairs rise and sometimes dry spots affect the joints. It’s like a more lush form of lounge music with small explosions of beat and dissonance.
The album opens with some canned laughter and then the sunlit strains of “Happy Up Here,” which wastes no time getting all full of itself. Cheery keystrokes, warm loops and some breathless backing vocals bid proper adieu to Stereolab. It’s sensational. Robyn guests on “The Girl And The Robot,” the most full-on club track; beglittered by `Cobrasnake’ moxie, it leans some filter-disco’d downspin against a dervish of unexpected strings that splay across the meat of the track like untied tendons. Junior is very female-fronted, btw, and Robyn, Lykke Li and previous guests Karin Dreijer-Andersson and Anneli Drecker are all smashing as ever.
Röyksopp, for what it’s worth, claim to have gotten to Li before everyone else. They’ve also compared Li’s voice to a marimba; nowhere is/was this better illustrated than by CSS’s twinkling, Caribbean-informed remix of “Little Bit.” At any rate her lilty chime is the most gorgeous part of “Miss It So Much,” which is quite gorgeous in its own right, all blippy analogues, airy string-swatches, and ’50s-style harmonies. (Thanks to the latter, it’s also highly whistleable.) Li always sings more staccato than legato and her chunky delivery sinks into the groove with rubber-tipped teeth.
The Knife’s Andersson appears on “Tricky Tricky,” which turns a lifelike fakeout into a scree of distortion and drama, complete with numbers eating themselves lyrically (“six afraid of seven/cause seven ate nine“?!) and “This Must Be It,” which sounds like Ladytron back when they were sort of good. Drecker’s contributions are “Vision Of One,” which blurs all sorts of chipped-glass melodies into more Stereolab stew; and “True To Life” which douses Alison Goldfrapp’s auctioned-off knickers in a Madonna’d ray of light.
Elsewhere “Silver Cruiser” shapes into a Boards of Canada fog with ghostly organ and other delicate touches and “Röyksopp Forever” starts with a slow billow, then hoists itself into a “Kashmir”-like classical piece, although, incidentally, you could amuse yourself by singing parts of “Hey Ya” over the arpeggios. I haven’t even gotten to the sort of romanticized fidget the record induces in certain spots with its bassy chops and wonky winches. What Röyksopp has done, really, is fashion one of the most unusual dance records of the year by playing it largely straight. There are no droll piano hip-hop covers, no blog-eyed disco, no Fagget Fairys aflit; only smooth-lined retronica with a twist of poptimism. It’s also, thanks to these particular collaborators, the smoothest melding of Norway and Sweden since the Nobel Academy. Mining or not, it’s definitely some sort of alchemy.