Review Summary: Gently flying in from Asia.
From an outsider’s (read: non-Asian) point of view, the massive appeal behind Danish soft rockers Michael Learns to Rock (MLTR) may be quite difficult to comprehend. Indeed, a series of albums following a basic verse-chorus song format, performed by the most unexciting trio of men ever (clean-shaven, white shirts, neatly cropped hair – you get the idea) seems like quite the hard sell. Yet the figures themselves tell a different story: this is a band which has not only sold over ten million records in Asia alone, but has also played live in over 20 countries and territories on the continent – including those that have always been traditionally viewed as being musically inaccessible such as the likes of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, and Malaysia.
Yet the most remarkable thing about it all, perhaps, is the observation that even in a market that’s as notoriously content to chomp on the mainstream bit as mainland Asia, precious few acts have managed to get away with releasing records that are stylistically similar several times in a row (and for good reason). Even fewer still have succeeded at sustaining audience turn-outs comparable to that of previous years at their live shows, with Asian attendance numbers frequently displaying a trend of plummeting rapidly after the initial burst of popularity has died down. The fact that MLTR achieved both milestones as early as the mid-2000s – and are continuing to sustain them even now – allows for some interesting conclusions about the ability of a formulaic auditory essence to appeal en masse.
To that end, it’s tempting to conclude that part of MLTR’s success likely comes down to their insistence at doing exactly what it says on the tin. The band’s inherently passive (a more accurate, but much less kind word would be “uninventive”, but we’ll let that slide) nature is probably best summarized by lead singer Jascha Richter's memorable response during a 2008 interview, in where he was asked as to what constituted the elements of a good song: "You got to have a chorus and a verse,” was the answer, delivered in full-on dead-pan. To the critical ear, it’s all-out anathema, but for the extended audience it makes absolute empirical sense. The rudimentary song format, when incorporated alongside simply-worded lyrics, whilst being propelled along only by the barest of instrumental inflections and supplanted with a “clean” band image that defies any sort of geographical categorization whatsoever, could work wonders when applied to an audience that is typically familiar with the medium only as a second or even third language. In that respect all bets are automatically switched off, with the success of an album being solely contingent on the strength of the hooks themselves and how the new songs stand up to the band’s previous offerings.
Which leads me nicely into why MLTR’s latest offering – Scandinavia
– comes off as a bit underwhelming. Although there’s no denying that Richter and co. still exudes traces of that same old Danish charm throughout all of Scandinavia
’s 44 minute runtime, there’s also no shaking the sense that MLTR have simply produced a lot better in the past. Most telling, perhaps, is the fact that the strongest tracks on the record are the more upbeat numbers, which is completely out-of-character for a band that is best known for its vast repertoire of karaoke-worthy ballads. Although it is quite welcome to see songs like “Shanghaied In Tokyo” and “Renovate My Life” display a flashier, slightly more edgy side to the Danish three piece, having a palette of slower tracks like “Heaven Is My Alibi” or “Make My Life” which do not quite meet the standards of MLTR classics like “25 Minutes”, “How Many Hours”, or even “The Actor”, does make for a rather disappointing aftertaste overall.
While the pensive slow rock archetype that MLTR launched for themselves over a decade ago has yet to completely recede from their interactions with us, the overall importance of the vitality of their sound probably never really infiltrated us – until now. For although Scandinavia
only rarely hints that it is prepared to reach MLTR’s previous levels of emotional and interpersonal engagement, when it does – like on the album-closing title track, for instance – the lines that Richter sings often end up taking on a whole new meaning altogether. “’Cause we belong in Scandinavia,” he chooses to croon on the album's closing track, as the record gradually spins to a halt. When he does that, I can’t help but feel that this time around, MLTR’s heart is simply someplace else, and ultimately, not with us.