Something’s not right here: Rules either grooves more than an introspective album is supposed to or introspects more than a groove album is supposed to. It’s all sleekness and shuffle on the way down, and all eloquent discomfiture inside; it sounds like lounge music that narrates the lives and loves of people who are terribly embarrassed by the idea of setting foot inside a lounge. As paradoxes go this is all pretty tame, but in the hands of Erlend Øye, who brought us “quiet is the new loud” at the beginning of the decade, it feels like something of great consequence, as though a whole generation’s sense of self hangs in the balance. Are we supposed to believe that shag carpet and adult situations is the new quiet?
Maybe, yeah. That’s pretty obviously the point, in at least a few ways. The contrast between the post-disco aesthetic of Rules and its stripped-bare narrative content is as deliberate as anything else therein, including the fact that the songs were all recorded in one take and composed to be exactly replicable on stage. Øye bares as much soul as he ever did in Kings of Convenience, his fretful-lover croon investing real dimension in “when you only want someone when that someone’s gone” and “you will lose me as a friend if you cross that line” – but this while the track beneath him lopes away to hit on the girl you came in with. The non-entity of a rhythm section that held together 2006’s Dreams is irrepressibly and lustily alive here, together and not quite taut, laying down absurdly smooth vamps even when channeling Daft Punk (“1517”) or Tom Vek (“Courage”) to middling effect.
The weird and promising thing is that it works without ever feeling natural. The actual coexistence of the earnest and the smoove stops being so striking after a while, but the best songs on Rules don’t let you forget there is one. In “Rollercoaster Ride,” the album’s shortest and slowest and sexiest song, Øye murmurs “It’s a rollercoaster ride / Of emotion / Paralyzing me,” so feebly that you can’t help but laugh. “Island,” the album’s last and longest and tensest song, brings a remote Rhodes burble to an eerily emotive climax that coalesces with the lyrics – a sudden glimpse of what this album would have been like with words and sounds pointing in the same direction.
But Rules is about mixed signals, and that it pulls them off so convincingly on both ends leaves some questions that could have real weight to the right listener: is it meant to get the bookish kids to dance, or to get the club kids to curl up and brood? Is it meant to present second-guessing as sexy, or is it meant to second-guess sexiness? Given how feasible it makes all of these seem, Rules could be an influential record yet. Not so much musically as culturally – the kind of record that dictates a way of looking at the world instead of resulting from one. That rollercoaster line is hilarious at first, but it gets less and less absurd when you think about it for a while.