Chock it up to an abundance of welfare programs or the all-encompassing influence of ABBA, but Sweden has become fertile soil for thoughtful, innovative indie pop. Set to celebrate its 10-year anniversary with the upcoming release of Optica, Shout Out Louds has solidified its place among pop-veteran Swedes like Peter Bjorn and John, The Cardigans and The Knife. Through a well-executed blend of introspective lyrics and dance-pop melodies, the band has managed to distinguish itself amid a sea of often monotonous pop music.

Optica

B+
Shout Out Louds
Merge Records


The self-produced Optica maintains the band’s signature musing lyricism and vastly expands the pop sensibilities through heavy and constant synthesizers that, though present on previous albums, have never been so dominant. But while Optica is certainly the band’s most pop-fueled album, it’s as brooding as it is breezy, and it’s far from conventional.

The album opens with “Sugar,” an up-tempo anthem reminiscent of the Cure — had Robert Smith abandoned his excessive gloom for buoyant subtlety. Vocalist Adam Olenius shines on this track, calmly crooning, “In bright, bright sunlight I forget where I want to be / And I’m growing old, still sugar on my tongue.” In many ways this first track previews the entire album, with lyrics both nostalgic and regretful accompanied by an unabashedly 1980s bass line.

“Blue Ice,” the album’s third track and pre-released single, crawls through a contemplative ballad while showing off an impressive string arrangement. Unfortunately, the song offers little else and will likely mark the point where some listeners begin to question Shout Out Louds’s depth. With repetitive lyrics about the blueness of ice, some might write off the entire album as overindulgent, more concerned with revisiting a tired sound than taking a chance on something new. Only three songs in, it’s tempting to compare this album to its last, Work, which many regarded as safe and uncreative. But Optica rewards patience, and the album’s midsection quickly dispels any worries that the effort lacks innovation.

Immediately following are “14th of July” and “Burn”: Both are foot-tapping, genre-bending accomplishments. Track six, “Walking in your Footsteps” represents a turning point for the album — as the mood lifts, the pace quickens and an identity is reached. When Olenius sings, “This road is not your own, it’s been covered / It’s been chartered so many times,” it seems as though he’s is wrestling with the album’s driving question: How can a band emulate a bygone era of synth-pop while remaining authentic and fresh?

The second half of Optica finds an answer to this question, creating a mood both familiar and bizarre. It’s an album that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a convertible en route to a roller rink 25 years ago — glamorous and viscerally pleasing in a way that distracts from its dark lyrical undertones. But Optica is far more than a collection of catchy instrumentation, and it’s Olenius’s wistful vocals that provide a prudent anchor alongside a parade of synthetic melodies.

The calculated result is a surreal blend of stoic wit and Duran Duran’s joyriding entertainment. But as odd a concept as it seems, Shout Out Louds is never over the top, and the band’s wallflower personality keeps the grand gestures from becoming too pompous.

The intersection of rock and dance pop is a strange one, filled with artists struggling to find a balance between the aesthetic and the emotional. There are multiple moments when Shout Out Louds locates this highly sought-after equilibrium, and the result is invigorating. Though the album falters at times, Optica is the band’s most mature record to date. In a decade saturated with indie pop, Optica continues to demonstrate Shout Out Louds’ uncanny ability to create a refreshing sound by bridging the old and the new.

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