Review Summary: Wolfpop v.2: loosely fitting sheep's clothing
What is pop music, and what is it for
This is the question Ulver seem to be prompting us towards on their fresh foray into synthpop, The Flowers of Evil
- only, I’m not sure the answers this album indicates are the same as the group would like us to reach.
Let’s start at the top: as a longstanding and widely acclaimed experimental collective, Ulver have reinvented themselves so many times that I doubt their first exploration of synthpop on 2017’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar
was really that much of a surprise for anyone (excepting the occasional metalhead forced to confront the potential for greatness in pop-derived music for potentially the first time). In many ways, then, their new record The Flowers of Evil
is a much more unexpected affair; this album sees the group double-dip into synthpop with a more tenacious commitment to its conventions. If The Assassination…
was Ulver bending elements of pop to their wider scope in a similar, though more committal, manner to Blood Inside
’s dabbling in rock opera conventions, then The Flowers of Evil
walks through the door its predecessor opened and steeps itself in the style entirely. The vast majority of this album is part and parcel with the throbbing basslines and steady dance beats similar to The Assassination…
’s opener “Nemoralia”, and that record’s more abstract territory is largely abandoned. Their Depeche Mode worship is as prominent here as before (a little less “Halo”, a little more “Personal Jesus”), but this time around it feels a little less like wry appropriation and more like full-scale immersion. As such, the single “Russian Doll” embraces genre tropes to a fault with its endlessly cyclical hooks and call-and-return chorus, while the R&B-flavoured chorus of “Apocalypse 1993” and “Nostalgia”’s funk rhythm section see Ulver adopting precedented patterns of influence with seamless proficiency - you’ve heard these songs before; this is Ulver’s attempt at making them their own.
As a result, the group have created something that makes as much, if not more sense when viewed as a product of its genre than as a chapter specific to their canon for the first time since Nattens Madrigal
. Sure, Kristoffer Rygg’s vocals and the group’s polished, spacious approach to production are instantly recognisable for returning fans, but if a stranger to the group encountered any one of these tracks on a dance playlist, they’d likely nod along without thinking twice about its idiosyncrasies.
This is where things get a little iffy.
The DNA of synthpop, as heard on this album and countless times elsewhere, demands lighter, more tactile engagement than the comparatively heavyweight art pop and experimentation Ulver have been pedalling until now. A good pop track shouldn’t inspire you to muse about aesthetic and influence; it should make you want to hop out of your chair and dance and feel
its hooks and beat. The group avoided this on The Assassination…
by presenting an album about
synthpop in its focus on atmosphere and versatile songwriting, but they play it straight here and ask us to dig in more freely. The Flowers of Evil
is packaged not as an art project, but as a pop album, and I’m not convinced Ulver have either the style or the commitment to pop gratification to see it through as such.
On an immediate level, these songs need more kick and contour. Almost every track adopts an identical approach to rhythm and clutches onto midtempo territory so tightly that you’d think the group’s metronome got stuck. “Nostalgia”’s slick incorporation of funk-styled disco guitar begs to be approached as the album’s most irresistible groove, but clocking in as the seventh iteration of an interchangeable beat at an interchangeable tempo, it finds itself swamped by the album’s ongoing homogeneity. Equally problematic is the approach Rygg takes to vocals; this man has wowed us time and time again with his ultra-smooth voice, but he sounds outright bored on some of these tracks. “Russian Doll” is as good an example as any of how he’ll lay down the song’s hooks with total competence in the first verse and chorus, only to reiterate them with robotically unchanging phrasing from that point onward; the lack of flair in his performance is more than a little surprising given how distinctively he’s rendered countless vocal melodies in past Ulver tracks. This quality is a must for pop vocalists; by coincidence, I found myself listening to Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” (a song I don’t even particularly like) shortly after my first spins of Flowers of Evil
, and the sheer vibrancy with which Gabriel develops, revises and adds to his own vocal hooks with an endless variety of alterations and inflections across this pitch spectrum felt like an unexpected antidote to everything missing in Rygg’s performance here. A pop album as stubbornly set on one particular groove as this one needs to find creative and exciting ways of presenting its most engaging qualities, and for goodness knows what reason, Ulver weren’t up to the challenge here.
That’s not to say that Flowers of Evil
is short of impressive moments. “Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers” boasts a great set of guitar hooks and makes for perhaps the most individually engaging song here, while “Apocalypse 1993” kicks off with a deliciously nasty synth line, and the bookends introduce and conclude the album smoothly, taking their time to kick into groove as they present their narratives of man and God and, later, man and woman. Honestly, any one of these songs holds up well individually and the group’s production and arrangement are as watertight as they’ve ever been, but this album sells itself short by drawing its chief strength from the particularities of its engineering and failing to cater to the more superficial elements of listener satisfaction that should be the bread and butter of this kind of music.
‘Superficial’ is an ambivalent word here; Ulver have always been wondrous in how they’ve juggled aesthetics without sacrificing the instantly recognisable sense of melancholy that underpins all their music, but that tone feels misplaced in songs that beg for something more robust than atmosphere to make their impact fully felt. In this sense, this album is a set of luxury truffles packaged, sold, and binged in the same fashion of bottom-rate supermarket chocolate. Flowers of Evil
should represent an erasure of the false dichotomy of high art and base pleasures, but it feels like a middle ground strewn with the negative qualities of both, and will likely leave its audience in that chocolate-on-face state of feeling oversatiated and a little cheap.