Album: Sucker Punch
In Brief: While Sigrid’s influences are obvious and she jumps around a bit stylistically, there are some formidable pop songs here with great hooks and thoughtful writing. She makes a great case for pop music being “basic” in its sound and structure without being boring.
I was having a discussion a few months back with a group of friends about different kinds of music we liked. Actually, it was more of an icebreaker than a full-on discussion – the instructions were to go around the room one by one, and have each person name an artist or song they had been enjoying recently, and what they think that signified about them. One guy in the room mentioned enjoying indie folk stuff like Mumford & Sons, but only their older stuff – once those bands tried too hard to go for mainstream appeal, he was out. He was very self-aware about this being an “indie hipster” point of view. Another guy was into a lot of straight-up Top 40 pop music (I forget the exact artist he named), and he explained it in a sort of way that made it clear he was used to have to defending his musical tastes to others. The word “basic” was used, as if he wanted to get out ahead of the expected criticism that his musical tastes were pure fluff. One woman in the group mentioned Sigrid, a Norwegian pop singer whom I had never heard of. No defense was given (or needed) in her case. She just said it was soothing, synthpop type music, and I was actually pretty intrigued from just that brief statement to find out more about this artist. The rejection of music by some people for being too “pop” or too “basic”, while it was embraced by others for the very same reasons, got me thinking about my own relationship with pop music, how I was a sucker for a good melodic hook or an inventive beat as long as the lyrics weren’t idiotic, but how I also had a tendency to favor artists who seemed more involved in the creative process and who could branch out into genres beyond what I considered basic, middle-of-the-road pop music that was designed by committee to rack up #1 radio singles.
I bring up this discussion, not only because it was how I first encountered Sigrid’s music, but specifically because she has a song called “Basic” on her debut album Sucker Punch that kind of obliquely addresses the concept. I’ll get into the details more when I go through the album track by track, but the basic conceit of it is that she doesn’t want to beat around the bush in a relationship and just wants to be herself and be honest instead of playing games and pretending to be or think or feel things that aren’t the truth. In a way, it’s an interesting defense of the art of making pop music, and how one overcomes the stigma of musicians in this genre being fake or shallow or uncreative. The dance-pop approach taken in that song runs right up the middle of what I’d expect modern Top 40 to be playing nowadays, and elsewhere on her album there are styles of pop with shades of hip-hop/R&B influence, a little bit of cutesy indie pop, a hefty dose of retro synthpop, and even a bit of power balladry. Artists ranging from Lights, Chvrches, and Owl City to Adele, Sia, and perhaps even Katy Perry (in the sense of how she comes up with really sticky pop hooks, not in the sense of constantly trying to prove how naughty she is for pure shock value) come to mind at different moments throughout these twelve songs. It’s enough of a mix of styles and sounds to keep the record engaging and interesting, even if at the end of it I’m not quite sure what sort of an identity Sigrid is going to settle on as an artist. But it makes a pretty compelling case for an artist’s ability to establish herself in the industry with little more than a pen, a strong voice, and the right production team to help her pull her disparate visions together. She was 22 when this record was released, so she’s got plenty of time left to grow into herself as an artist. (That might seem downright old to Billie Eilish fans, but come on, that’s the kind of lightning that only seems to strike once or twice a generation.)
What’s interesting about Sucker Punch is that while it may seem sweet and innocent and nostalgic on the surface, there are actually a handful of moments where the record cleverly lives up to its name. Particularly on the topic of relationships and their sometimes frustrating and temporary nature, Sigrid references a few occasions where the rug has been utterly pulled out from under her as she’s fallen either into or out of love. The lyrics hit with enough of a sting (in two instances, warranting a Parental Advisory sticker) that it’s clear she’s put some thought into when she wanted to sucker punch the audience. Even at their most joyful and innocent, I appreciate how a lot of these songs are phrased, how they emphasize the need to be herself and to put her own mental health and artistic growth first, even if it means missing out on a stable relationship or a more lucrative record deal. There might be a few songs where I think the music is a bit of a punt, or the lyrics aren’t quite as interesting to dig into, but for the most part Sucker Punch is a consistent listen that keeps me coming back to it – especially due to the strong set of singles she has stacked up at the beginning of the record. What can I say – sometimes there are engrossing, moody, concept heavy albums with complex instrumentation that take like five or ten listens for me to get into, and then there are the breezy pop records that might not be the most profound thing ever, but still hold their own in terms of having something worthwhile to say and having a lot of fun saying it. Sigrid falls into the latter camp. There should be no need for guys like me (or my self-described basic pop-loving) friend to feel ashamed about that, or like they always have to be on the defensive about it.
1. Sucker Punch
If the title track hadn’t won me over with its aggressively fuzzy synth pads that set up a fun, head-bobbing beat for it to follow, then it definitely would have had me at “Meet me in the hallway for a cup of coffee by the stairs”. Coffee is one of those beverages that can provide comfort or confusion – you can have long conversations with someone over a few cups of it that bare your souls to each other and form lasting bonds, or it can signify an ambiguous “Is this a date or just hanging out?” situation. I think the latter is the situation that Sigrid finds herself in, showing up to the cafe wearing the exact same casual red hoodie as the person she’s crushing on hard, and every little moment that illustrates something further they seem to have in common causes another wave of strong feelings to wash over her – the titular “sucker punch” that hints her just when she thinks she’s in control. She’s come up with an assertive chorus here that is appropriately punchy, and yet it flows pretty naturally out of the verse, so as to not seem gimmicky or (as a lot of pure pop music does these days) like it’s trying way too hard to turn a catch phrase into a massive hook. Her vocals go back and forth between sweet and semi-exasperated, utilizing little bits of spoken word and almost shouting at a few points to underscore the emotional thrill ride that this yet-undefined relationship is taking her on. It’s an excellent slice of streetwise synthpop. The only potential hiccup is when she drops the line “I don’t want to be the one to fuck this up” in the lead-up to the second chorus – it seems out of place at first for such a vibrant and youthful pop song, but I suppose that in itself is a sucker punch, the more-serious-than-expected moment that hits the listener unprepared. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s not just doing it for shock value.
2. Mine Right Now
I believe this track is the current single – it’s incredibly catchy, but I do wonder how a song like this works in the modern-day playlist mentality, where you’ve got to hook ’em within 30 seconds, lest they hit skip and you lose your streaming revenue. The lyrical cold open, backed by minimal bass, leaves the listener wondering at first whether this is going to be a ballad or a slow-burner, and it’s really until near the end of the first verse that the beat kicks in and we realize we’re in glossy retro-pop mode, with a bouncing syncopated beat that’s bound to trigger some flashbacks for 80s kids. Here, Sigrid builds on the uncertainty she established in the first song, describing a relationship that seems to be going well, but one in which she keeps second-guessing herself and imagining all the myriad ways it could get sabotaged. She eventually has to console herself that “It’s alright if we don’t end up together/’Cause you’re mine right now.” It’s been a long while since I was out in the dating world, but I can remember when my wife and I got together and I was bogged down with worries about how the heck this thing was gonna last, what with all the logistical difficulties in our two separate lives at the time. John Mayer‘s “Clarity”, a song that took a very similar attitude to this one, was my personal moment of zen at the time, despite how much I might have been indoctrinated growing up to think a relationship is only worth it if you’re sure it’s leading toward marriage. I do think you can sometimes ruin these things by failing to be in the moment because you’re trying so hard to shoehorn the situation into a future you’ve already imagined for yourself. So I still have a soft spot for songs like this that say it’s OK if you can’t predict the future, as long as you’re making the most of the present (and preferably communicating about what you both hope happens in the future).
It’s insane how quickly I fell in love with this song. It’s a damn near perfect slice of dance pop that knows exactly when to go for the jugular in terms of its big chorus hook, but that also knows how to peel back the layers and reveal the songcraft behind it, letting a few simple moments shine through where there is just a piano or an acoustic guitar accompanying Sigrid’s voice. This makes perfect sense for a song that finds her wanting to cut through all of the games and drama and the general fear of saying how you really feel that people often experience in relationships. She doesn’t care if “basic” is used by others as a derogatory term, or if she runs the risk of ruining some big romantic illusion by simply being herself and saying what’s on her mind, because to her, “basic” means authentic. I can feel the anticipation building up as she asks questions like “Am I crazy?” and “So are you feeling stupid too?”, hoping the other person will admit they’ve been struggling with that exact same desire to just tear down all the facades and say what they feel, and that they’re kicking themselves for holding it in so long. The big synth hook in the chorus hits with laser-like precision, accompanied by Sigrid’s sweet, cascading “Ooh-whoa”s in the chorus. It’s a delicious thrill ride of a song that I find myself wishing never had to end, and it gets me pumped every time it starts up and I hear that delightful “na-na-na” as it fades in. (How has this one not been released as a single yet? Get on it, record label geniuses who decide these things.)
Up next is another strong dance-pop song that goes from sweetly nostalgic to confused and a bit bitter as it pivots from verse to chorus. I should like this one a lot more than I do, because usually I’m all for subverting the expectations of pretty, happy pop songs by tearing down the facade of fake, overly romanticized relationships that tends to get played up in this genre. That’s exactly what she’s doing here, setting a scene that sounds like it’s right out of a romantic comedy, before tearing it apart by noting that there’s no comedy and it’s just two strangers who desperately want to be with someone telling themselves they’re in love when it’s really quite shallow. There’s even some motor-mouthed spoken word stuff in the bridge. Should be a total winner, right? Well, there’s one big problem. I mentioned Lights as a sonic comparison earlier, and for all I know, any similarities between the two female, synth-heavy indie pop artists are entirely coincidental, rather than Lights being an actual influence on Sigrid. But when this song’s chorus comes around, all I can think of is the Lights song “Skydiving”. The melody and the vocal cadences are so close that it’s downright uncanny. Normally I wouldn’t say it’s close enough to put her in lawsuit-land… but Coldplay and Katy Perry have been sued for far less, so I don’t know. If you’ve never heard the Lights song in question, you won’t have that distraction and will likely get a lot more out of this one than I did. But once you have heard it, you can’t unhear the similarities.
5. Don’t Feel Like Crying
…And here comes the inevitable breakup song. Once again, a much brighter, happier musical palette than one would expect given the subject matter helps to disguise what’s really going on. The strings at the beginning of this one are where I’m most strongly reminded of Owl City (and despite how much I’ve mocked the last few Owl City records, I do mean for this to be a positive comparison). We find her in the aftermath of the breakup in the first verse, wondering if she should do the usual pity-party things that people do when a relationship ends, like binge eating or just straight up bawling her eyes out. But she’s defiant. She’s a survivor, y’all. And she’s not gonna do any of that stuff… at least not tonight. What’s interesting is that, although she puts her bravest face on and pulls herself together in order to get through the rest of her day, she’s not saying that she’s never gonna let that flood of hurt feelings in… to deny it forever would probably be unhealthy. But at least in the moment, she’s weirdly serene about it, understand that there was a reason why this thing wasn’t gonna last, and so she’s gonna hold her head high, at least until she gets home (which, in the psuedo-rap that follows the chorus, she admits is the place where it’s probably all gonna hit her). So far, I appreciate the pragmatic approach she’s been taking to relationships – both when getting into them and when getting out of them. The common theme seems to be that she recognizes the temptation to lie to herself, but understands that doing so is going to hold her back from getting anything meaningful out of these experiences. That’s certainly a lot more wisdom than I had at her age!
6. Level Up
Here we take a break from the synth and programming-heavy stuff, for more of a bare-bones, quirky indie pop song that I’m not sure Sigrid knew how to finish after getting it off to a decent start. The only notable instrument here is the slow, syncopated plucking of notes on an electric guitar, and there’s a bit of a Zooey Deschanel vibe to her sweet cooing, even though it’s a rather lyrically heavy song about a couple avoid an argument while one of them packs up their things and prepares to leave with the conflict unresolved. She seems to be urging this person to stick around and have the conversation, to face the hardship rather than squirming their way around it, “‘Cause when we get through the struggle, that’s when we level up.” But just when the song seems like it’s going to turn a corner in what should be the bridge, it rather abruptly fades out, leaving us with a two-minute interlude that forgot to expand into a full-fledged song. The title “Level Up” promises way more of an epic adventure than what we end up getting here (and I admittedly have a rather high bar for songs with that title, thanks to my all-time favorite songwriter Vienna Teng). This is the album’s first true misfire.
7. Sight of You
The “Owl City strings” are back in full force as the second half of the album gets underway. This one might be guilty of being too sonically similar to “Don’t Feel Like Crying” – I get the two mixed up often. But this might be the first song where the lyrical and musical moods match up, and it’s just unabashedly happy and she’s not pulling any tricks on us. It seems oddly early in Sigrid’s career for her to be writing songs about the rigors of touring, and how being away from loved ones get her down. But I won’t deny it’s infectious when she looks out into the crowd, sees her lover there waving back at her, and it gives her the strength to go on despite whatever mishaps might have taken place during her travels. This isn’t a particularly deep song, but it’s honest and believable, and frankly it’s more enjoyable than any of Owl City’s attempts to cover similar subject matter.
8. In Vain
This is the song where I feel like she’s shooting for Adele, but winds up sounding more like Sia. Not that this is a bad thing. It’s another stripped-back song, with some bare guitar chords and even barer emotions, making it easy to imagine she’s pouring her heart out in a coffee shop somewhere after a relationship went horribly awry at the wrong time. The little squeaks and other imperfections that show up during the rawest moments of the song actually work in its favor, because they expose both how alone she feels and also how resilient she is in the face of a tragic decision that nonetheless had to be made. She’s basically told the person she was with that if they weren’t really feeling it, they needed to take a hike and stop wasting her time. “Sucker Punch” might have slid by with a PG-13 rating, but this is the lone song where the album really earns its explicit tag, as the chorus tells this person in no uncertain terms again and again, “So don’t you stay if you don’t mean it/If you don’t feel it, and just fuck me up again.” Given the mood of the song, I’m fully expecting the swears to be placed where they’ll be most devastating, but what I’m really not expecting is for this song to turn a corner and become a bouncy pop anthem in its second half. It’s perversely brilliant, bringing the synths and slamming programmed rhythm and so forth back in during a song where the listener is expecting a break from all that, and turning it into a bittersweet sing-along toward all the people who have ever hurt anyone in the audience before by lying to them like this. My one big regret here is that I’m gonna have to skip this one when my kid’s in the car.
9. Don’t Kill My Vibe
This was Sigrid’s big breakout single back in 2017 – I somehow hadn’t managed to hear of her until two years later when it finally made it onto this album, so it’s still rather new to me at this point. It feels like it’s smartly placed in the context of the album, with the heavily digitized vocal sample at the beginning working perfectly as a transition out of “In Vain” and back into the more fun, upbeat pop stuff. This song builds very carefully toward a big chorus, with the slow, stark piano chords and a few keyboard effects once again leading you to expect a spaced-out ballad. I have to say that Sigrid and her co-writers are quite good at coming up with songs that don’t just have catchy choruses (which this one does), but also at making sure the verse flows smoothly into the pre-chorus, and then the chorus, and then the bridge. This seems like it should be a simple enough task in pop music, but I’ve heard far too many designed-by-committee pop songs that were manufactured to be big hits, which just slam a hook in there with zero subtlety, making them feel like complete non-sequiturs after a barely-there verse. So I appreciate how gracefully this song achieves lift-off, going from the sad observations in the verse, about a person who pathetically keeps trying to mold her into something she’s not, into the soaring, defiant chorus where she declares that this person who is trying to cramp her style isn’t nearly as important to her as they seem to think they are. This is a bold move for a debut single. It gives us a hint that she had either already had some experience with the music industry trying to fit her into a predefined marketable image, or was just wary after watching it happen to other musicians she looked up to. The chorus is such a fun one to sing/shout along to, a good combination of full-throated “whoa”s and lilting high notes. But the real kicker comes in the chorus, which with its stuttering drums and persistent handclaps, almost feels like a rebuttal to a schoolyard taunt: “You say I’m young, I don’t care, I won’t quit, no-no-no-ho/You’re acting like you hurt me, but I’m not even listening!”
10. Business Dinners
You know how my complaint with “Level Up” was that it felt like half a song with no real ending? This one has the opposite problem. it starts off so awkwardly that it feels like we’ve been awkwardly dropped into a bouncy, candied-reggae sort of pop song with no beginning. The chorus just pops in there awkwardly and then she has to retreat back to the verse to give us some sense of why we’re here, singing about business dinners and numbers and figures. This is basically a follow-up to “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, in that expresses a noted lack of interest in playing the music industry game, selling herself as a product, all that good stuff that a big record label would probably want to mold her into. (She’s already a straight-up pop artist, for crying out loud – is any molding really needed to make this commercially viable? Or… *shudder* …am I already hearing the results of a half-hearted attempt at that?) I like the message of it, but it feels a bit redundant after “Don’t Kill My Vibe”, and at the very least these songs shouldn’t be back-to-back on the record. The production, the rhythm, and the flow of the song just don’t work as well here as they do on most of the rest of the album, leaving us with a bit of a mutant half-song that means well, but doesn’t have enough time to really get off the ground.
11. Never Mine
On this track, we get more of a chillwave sort of vibe – upbeat enough to make sure the beat is strong, but laid-back enough to leave some room for honest reflection. I don’t think it’s by chance that we have a song about someone being “Mine” as the second track on the album, and a song about someone not being “Mine” as the second-to-last. It sounds like the thing that she feared, but was trying not too hard to think about, has finally happened – the relationship turned out to be temporary, some distance grew between them, and she’s realizing it’s time to say goodbye. As sad of a reflection on a love that wasn’t built to last as this may be, I like how she’s not possessive and she seems to realize this was only meant to be a season of her life – neither of them owns the other and can command the other person to stay put. The vibe here reminds me a bit of the Lights song “Speeding”, but that’s definitely more of a coincidence, probably a result of EDM artists who have influenced both of them, and there’s no direct melodic similarity this time around. It’s a nice way to gently tap on the brakes as we transition from upbeat pop into the stark, down-tempo closing number, but the one downside here is that the chorus is really repetitive, with the word “never” being repeated over 50 times by the time the song is through.
The closing track is where she really reminds me of Adele. Not the big, belting-at-the-top-of-her-lungs Adele of “Rolling in the Deep” or “Hello”, but the more introspective yet still powerful Adele of “Someone Like You”. I’ll grant you that my knowledge of Adele doesn’t extend much past those three songs, but if she had a quieter album track that was just her and a piano, with no intent to ship it to radio, then I think this would be a passable enough impression of such a thing, stylistically speaking. Here Sigrid acknowledges that she almost got to the point of giving up her own identity to stay in a relationship, and ultimately she chose the riskier path of saying goodbye to that person (i.e. being the dynamite that blows up the mountain) rather than the safer path of staying coupled up just to avoid being alone. Again, it’s the little squeaks and imperfections, the places where the cracks show, that give this song power even if it might not be as technically strong of a performance as some of the female vocalists she’s clearly drawing influence from. This is the one track where it’s just her and an un-programmed instrument, no premature endings and no stylistic switches halfway through the song. it might end the album on a sad note, but it also sums up an important aspect of her persona as an artist – the ability to stay true to herself, say what she’s actually feeling, and not beat around the bush for the sake of getting others to like her or fall in love with her. There might still be some growing pains in terms of figuring out what influences she wants to emulate and what musical styles are the best vehicle for the songs she’s writing. But if she sticks with this particular aspect of her identity, I think Sigrid has a strong career arc ahead of her.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sucker Punch $1.75
Mine Right Now $1.50
Don’t Feel Like Crying $1.25
Level Up $.25
Sight of You $1
In Vain $1.25
Don’t Kill My Vibe $1.50
Business Dinners $.50
Never Mine $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: