Writing about The Understanding will be difficult. Any clear critical thought, good or bad, will be clouded by Röyksopp’s abominable violation of everything decent — a song packaged as awkwardly as Grandma unknowingly sending you her pet turtle as a birthday gift, but with verses and choruses, and the title “49 Percent.”
On The Understanding, the Röyksopp boys — Torbjørn Brundtland and Svein Berge — aren’t interested in crawling back into the niche of their 2001 debut, Melody A.M. Opener “Triumphant” is a slow, piano-led builder that holds its tension long enough to feel like something M83 could have composed, and as “49 Percent” gains momentum, a looping sample that could be anything from a squealing saxophone to a homeless man yelling for money bleats in the background, drawing forth repressed childhood memories of visits to the petting zoo.
The Understanding is more aggressive than the down-tempo offerings of the band’s past. A handful of tracks sound more like other artists remixing Röyksopp than what we’ve come to expect of these semi-sleepy Norwegians. The bass-bouncing “Only This Moment” and the Annie-esque “Follow My Ruin” (Brundtland produced three tracks on Anniemal) are potential club standards, much in the same sense as how “Poor Leno” exploded for Melody A.M., and guest vocalist Chelonis R. Jones begins “49 Percent” singing in a whisper that conveys as much flimsy emotion as a Ying Yang Twins single but lacks the killer beat and naughty lyrics.
Although several of Röyksopp’s experiments in reinvention succeed, such as the long-building “Alpha-Male” and the slightly Mouse on Mars-sounding “Circuit Breaker,” none of the tracks feels at place on an album. The Understanding jumps too often from un-climactic, non-driving filler (“Beautiful Day Without You”) to obviously club-intended epics (“What Else Is There?”), and the chorus of “49 Percent,” which goes “49 percent/ 1 percent short of half/ and less than half ain’t really much of nothing,” is phrased in such a way that if you imagine the worst possible way to deliver these lines, it’s about fourteen times as bad and breathily accented with the scent of Euro-trash.
Melody A.M. was snore-worthy at times, but at least it felt like an album that grounded itself on a unified mood, perfect for chilling out and occasionally — but not necessarily — busting a move. If there’s anything to halt an electronic full-length from being tolerable to listen to as an album rather than individual songs, it’s being unfocused and scattered. And “49 Percent” makes me want to thrash a hammer against my head until my pain receptors go numb.