Once comprising half of the teen-pop duo M2M, which enjoyed some success at the beginning of the century but which fell apart almost as soon as it had gotten started, Marit Larsen pulled off a genuine “George Michael” and accomplished what so many former teen-pop stars strive—and, more often than not, fail—to accomplish: Her 2005 solo debut, Under the Surface, garnered significant critical acclaim, drawing favorable comparisons to the likes of Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. It helped that Larsen’s sound had nothing to do with the bubblegum pop of the Max Martin factory from which she’d emerged, opting instead to cultivate a rootsier, more countrified songcraft awash with willowy string sections and cascading piano lines.
Three years later, Larsen returns with The Chase, another batch of impeccably tailored songs that sound timeless but never too familiar. Continuing to work with the ornate pop sounds that typified her debut, Larsen’s sweet and ever-so-slightly cracked voice flows as beautifully as ever over endearing hurdy-gurdy rhythms and eccentric arrangements that incorporate a number of odd sounds not typically heard on your average modern pop record. “If a Song Could Get Me You” skips along at such an adorably feather-light pace that its mildly epic, warm-hearted splendor might not fully reveal itself until after repeat listens. Elsewhere, “Addicted” kicks into action like vintage ABBA and transforms into a barnstorming, knees-up sing-along about self-realization, while “Is It Love,” a sublimely constructed piece of orchestral pop, steadily builds to a choir of voices that grows more and more intense as it repeats its question. The sad-eyed swirl of “Fences,” with its rueful accordion melody and ascendant wordless vocals reminiscent of Kate Bush, ends the album wonderfully, giving one the impression they’ve experienced the sonic equivalent of watching someone disappear into a gentle snowstorm.
Despite the hopscotch melodies and sprightly deliveries, The Chase is an altogether angstier, more dour creation than its predecessor. While Larsen previously concealed the quiet melancholy beneath misleadingly sugary arrangements, the words she chooses to use on many of her new songs are more barbed and vindictive, sung with a childlike innocence that remarkably doesn’t detract from the darker mood but which, in fact, actually serves in adding an air of disquiet throughout. This kind of newfound spite is best exemplified on “Ten Steps,” wherein Larsen recounts leaving her on-again/off-again lover behind, having seemingly seduced him for the last time more out of a desire for revenge than lust, delivering a cold-hearted lyric like “I’m about to break your heart, or so I hope” with undeniable relish.
Larsen isn’t making music that would appear to have much of an audience in a time when the faux-edgy poseur-pop of Lady Gaga and Frankmusik is the au courant sound on the pop charts, which is a crying shame because it ultimately means few people outside of Larsen’s native Norway, where she’s enjoyed a great deal of well deserved success, will probably ever get the chance to discover some of the most exuberant pop music to be made since ABBA threw in the towel. Larsen has come close to perfecting her fellow Scandinavians’ knack for creating deceptively simple pop songs devoid of any pretension or allusions to cool.