In the midsection of “Patience”, the title track of his ninth studio album, Sondre Lerche starts delivering a monologue. It’s an unusual choice; spoken word has never been a feature of the Norwegian pop songwriter’s music before. But in the monologue, which recounts fan interactions he’s had over the years, Lerche describes his strange place in the world of music. One fan tells him, “I can’t believe no one knows who you are”, while another suggests, “You should be on The Voice! Adam would love you.” The woman who told him this clearly didn’t know that Lerche served for three years as a mentor on Norway’s version of The Voice, essentially making him the Adam Levine of his homeland.
Sure, Lerche’s no global celebrity, but he’s developed a considerable following owing to his brand of sophisticated, clever pop in the vein of Prefab Sprout. He’s written scores for movies, most notably the 2007 Steve Carell dramedy Dan in Real Life. He balances living in the US with a successful Norwegian and European music career. And yet, after all this time, some people think that folks don’t know who Sondre Lerche is. He’s somehow a Voice-worthy talent and a total unknown, all at once. Who is he, then, exactly?
Up until Please, Lerche’s 2014 album and masterpiece, there was a fairly straightforward answer to that question. For the stretch of his discography spanning his 2001 debut Faces Down (released when Lerche was just 19) to his 2011 self-titled LP, he specialized in a sweet, often romantic pop accented by tinges of jazz and bossa nova. Put another way, Lerche writes pop music that never met a seventh chord it didn’t like.
His often chilled-out musical demeanor had its detractors, with one critic labeling Faces Down a case of “EZ-indie”. But if Lerche wasn’t the most raucous of songwriters, he is among the more sophisticated of pop composers. Intricate tunes like Two Way Monologue‘s title track and “Good Luck” on Heartbeat Radio showcase Lerche’s ability to gently but creatively push the bounds of the traditional pop song. Then there’s the matter of chord progressions, a skill in which Lerche quickly proved his chops. From the Tin Pan Alley-inflected “Wet Ground” on Two Way Monologue to the rapidly descending chords on Sondre Lerche‘s “Private Caller”, sophistication in chord progression is a hallmark of Lerche’s craft.
Those same core features hold true on Patience. But the Lerche who wrote Patience has advanced well beyond even the Lerche of just ten years ago. His transformation as a songwriter leaped into the stratosphere on Please, which may be the most colorful and eclectic divorce album ever made. On that record and its followup, the 1980s-inspired Pleasure, Lerche utilizes the songwriting techniques for which he’s made his name and deconstructs them, and at the same time adding in new sonic tricks to shake up his usual methods. Never before Please had a Lerche song erupted in noise the way “Bad Law” does. In a live setting Lerche and his band are known to break out into a jam, but no Lerche LP had ever featured a rock-out session like Pleasure‘s “Violent Game”.
Unlike the dynamic Please and the lushly produced Pleasure, Patience features some of Lerche’s quietest and most atmospheric compositions. His voice and a gently played nylon string guitar form the core of “I Love You Because It’s True” and “Why Would I Let You Go”, the latter a career highlight. The Van Dyke Parks-arranged “Put the Camera Down” finds Lerche, his voice in heavy reverb, singing amid a constantly shifting string section. Closing number “My Love Is Hard to Explain” is at its core a new take on the jazz standard, a style Lerche explored on 2006’s Duper Sessions, but with its spacey production it takes on a more abstract quality.
The same goes for “Are We Alone Now”, which sounds like Steely Dan by way of Destroyer. At the heart of that song is a jazz number quite like things we’ve heard from Lerche before, but the instrumentation and production are in keeping with his post-Please evolution. On earlier albums, Lerche may have embellished this music a great deal more, or cases like “Put the Camera Down”, given the song a clearer pop backbone. Patience‘s investment, however, is in the vibe, in the space created by its atmospheric flourishes.
That’s not to say that Lerche throws his pop sensibility out the window. Lead single “You are Not Who I Thought I Was”, a cheeky lyric in which Lerche looks on his old self in the third person, boasts a chorus that ranks up there with his strongest. The bouncy piano riff on “I Can’t See Myself Without You” could have appeared comfortably on earlier records of his like Phantom Punch (2007). Equally exciting are the songs where Lerche renews his passion for traditional songwriting modes like the bossa nova. “Why Did I Write the Book of Love” packages a spot-on parody of what Lerche calls “the well-meaning liberal” in the form of a Tropicália lounge ballad. Lerche has long carried a torch for Brazilian music, but it’s never sounded purer than it does here.
Patience strikes a difficult balance: it advances the musical development Lerche achieved with Please and Pleasure, all the while hearkening back to some of his oldest tunes. The past and present work together simultaneously. The chorus of “Patience” puts it best: “Patience / I’m coming.” With this record, Lerche is patient and progressing, simultaneously moving forward while at the same time savoring the present moment. The resultant portrait of Lerche captures the delightful paradoxes of his sound and image: Voice-ready on one song, an obscure experimentalist on another. Patience thus proves a stellar conclusion to the “P-titled” trilogy of the last half-decade.
Taken as a whole, Please, Pleasure, and Patience represent Lerche’s finest work as a musician. Together these records show that there is no definitive answer to the question, “Who is Sondre Lerche?” The joy of Patience, and the place Lerche is at in his career right now, is that he’s still exploring that question and finding new answers, just as we are too.