According to ODIN, Norway’s official public information center, crude oil and fuel-related products accounted for 64 percent of Norway’s exports in the year 2000. Only Saudi Arabia exported more. That number dropped in 2001, however, as Norway stepped up exports of its most valuable resource to date: Erlend Oye.
With close friend Eirik Glambek Boe, Oye spent the last two years as one-half of the acoustic duo Kings of Convenience. In early 2001, the pair released the sublime Quiet is the New Loud and later that year, its companion remix album, Versus. After frantically touring the world with KoC, Oye ventured out on his own, lending vocals to fellow Norwegians Royksopp on their critically acclaimed album Melody A.M., and in late 2001, turned his attention to producing Unrest.
The concept of Unrest is a result of Oye’s nomadic tendencies, as well as his growing infatuation with the mellow electronics of Versus: ten cities, ten producers, ten songs. Oye traveled to Connecticut, through Western Europe, and finally to Turku, Finland, working one-on-one with each producer to craft and complete the ten songs (plus a hidden remix) on Unrest.
Oye’s straightforward, almost chatty singing style, and lyrics that reflect what he calls “optimistic sadness” — both trademarks of his work with KoC — are in full bloom on Unrest. The tracks that accompany Oye’s pensive vocals are similar to what is now being dubbed “electroclash” — synth-heavy ’80s-style beats as composed by the computer from War Games. (“Shall. We. Play. A. Game?”) The results often consist of little more than a simple electronic drumbeat with a few random tones tossed in to constitute a melody. While most tracks are uptempo, they are by no means equipped to handle the rigors of drunken revelers clamoring for dance music. But it’s near impossible to listen to this album without nodding your head.
In practice, the “optimistic sadness” that Oye brings to this album often results in an aura of longing and nostalgia. The first track, “Ghost Trains,” is a perfect example of the muted emotion that thrives on this album. Morgan Geist’s throbbing beat thumps along while Oye reflects on missed opportunities and lost loves: “Three days in April/ three years ago/ one black-eyed stranger/ I learned to know.”
The problem is that it’s difficult to strike that delicate balance between optimism and sadness for 10 consecutive songs. When the longing isn’t there, the cold, clinical beats do not carry the album. Soviet’s track, “Sheltered Life,” sounds like a 45 of Billy Joel’s “My Life” played at 33-and-a-third. “Prego Amore,” recorded with Jolly Music, is as close as you can get to a skinny, tee-totaling Norwegian guy with big glasses rapping over a Kurtis Blow beat. It’s as unpleasant as it sounds.
Thankfully, the downside is minimized by Oye’s knack for catchy hooks. The album peaks at its midpoint with Scott Herren (aka Prefuse 73) behind the decks on “Every Party (Has a Winner and a Loser).” Easily the most inventive song on the album, hypnotic handclaps back plaintive blips and a blurry piano while Oye discusses the politics of partygoing: “Each our own individual game plan … Who’s there with whom? / Who failed to show? / Who’ll leave alone?” The high points continue with Minizza’s pulsing barebones track “The Athlete,” which is vaguely reminiscent of New Order’s “Blue Monday” — in a good way. Oye creates the most infectious chorus ever to be sung in French, which is no small feat. The only problem, of course, is that I have no idea what he’s saying, and I am now forced to hum gibberish to myself all day.
Unrest is an exercise in restraint; very little overt sentiment is displayed throughout the album. But in the same way that anticipation is often better than the real thing, the smoldering emotion buried just below the surface works beautifully on Unrest. Oye has produced a seductive collection of songs that are, for the most part, described by the title of the closing track: “Like Gold.”