Across their 14 years, the Australian group Architecture in Helsinki has shape-shifted, and not. The essence of their music has been the same – using melody, rhythm and varied instrumentation on pop songs about life/death/love, with a poetic sense of whimsy. Yet to an extent they’ve changed up the language they use. They started with small, orchestral-leaning pop, took that in a more epic direction, and then in a more hyper one with a dance-club hiding beneath the chaos. They took four years between albums, and then, for 2011’s Moment Bends, streamlined their sound, taking those same elements in a sleek direction that was both tropical and futurist in tone.
Now, in 2014, they’re starting with that same minimalist foundation (working with the same producer, Franc Tétaz of Gotye fame) and loading it with 1980s pop touchpoints galore. The opening song “In the Future” immediately reminds me of ‘80s aerobics videos and Madonna, a clear influence through the album. The low background voice uttering “are we in the future/living in the future” alone offers a wealth of ‘80s memories for me: a baritone voice uttering “pop goes the world”, the spoken voices behind Whitney Houston telling us to dance, and on and on.
It’s not just the ‘80s, though that is the dominant vibe. They take a ’60s pop song (Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk Into the Room”) and make it sound like an ‘80s prom. They end the album with a party song also in a 1960s mold, where you can easily imagine a group of men in matching suits doing a dance number. Yet the lead vocals on that song are Kellie Sutherland singing like Madonna, as she does through much of the album. Which means we think of the ‘60s and the ‘80s at once – which means, of course, The Big Chill soundtrack and its wake. Or, if you’re slightly hipper, the Style Council.
At the start of “U Tell Me”, singer Cameron Bird throws a pseudo-goth effect on his voice, to echo that he’s singing about the dead, visiting catacombs. There’s a very Prince-like keyboard in that song too, within its sort-of reggae, sort-of Miami Vice feeling. On “April” he takes us into ballad territory – not power ballads, more like white teen-pop-ers trying to pull off an R&B slow jam. “Born to Convince You” conjures up creepy ‘80s stalkers with hints of Tears for Fears and even something like a Glenn Frey or Don Henley hit. “2 Time” resembles rollerskating music, perhaps rollerskating to “Heart of Glass” as interpreted by a breathless pop diva that came in its wake. Sutherland throws a little Madonna-ish rap into the mostly Bird-sung “Boom (4eva)”, a song, like many here, about falling in and out of love.
I’ve been focusing on the musical influences and touchpoints here, but I could just as easily be writing about the heartbreak in these songs, the way it, like many great pop albums, often feels like a break-up album when you listen closely. But if it is one, it’s also an overly hopeful, positive one which is also about nonconformity, about smiling and dancing in the face of oblivion and certain doom. On “Echo”, the protagonist asks someone, “have faith in me / don’t ask me why-y-y-y-y”. I get the sense throughout the album that beneath the bright colors, the grooves and the fun looking-back costume-wearing, there’s a mass of pain, grief and uncertainty.
On “Before Tomorrow”, one of the clearest party anthems but also a likely breakup song, Sutherland sings, “there are times when all our people keep their problems alive / we’ll be floating backwards into the sun.” Is this escapism or suicide? And which direction are we going, forward or back? And again, the future and past are mixed up: “Make some history for tomorrow”, she beckons.
What Architecture in Helsinki is up to here doesn’t seem like nostalgia. They’re repurposing specific elements of pop music past, utilizing all of the emotions and sensory reactions tied up in those memories, and combining them into something that nonetheless feels fresh.
As basically a child of the ‘80s, I’m eating up the mixing and matching they’re doing, within songs that still hit on all of the reasons I’ve been an Architecture in Helsinki fan since the early 2000s. Basically this album almost made me stay up all night watching music videos of one-hit wonders from the ‘80s instead of finishing this review.
But I had to finish it, because I’m feeling completely out-of-step with other critics on this one. Look through all of the major Internet music sites and you’ll find negative reviews: Pitchfork, Paste, AllMusic, and so on. I don’t relate to those reviews in any way; they seem to be punishing the band for not sounding enough like they did when the writers first heard the band.
Somehow the album itself seems to anticipate this reaction. The album overtly acknowledges that the band is out of tune with the trends of our time, in its navigation of past decades and in the songs’ expressed uncertainty about where they belong. “Is this the future? Are we in the future?”