Roxette successfully blends the classic with the modern on “Good Karma”
This review is by guest blogger G.B. James (Author and avid music fan)
The late 90s were a perplexing time to be a fan of Roxette. The highs of international megahits such as “The Look“, “Joyride” and the ubiquitous “It Must Have Been Love” were quietly resigned to their rightful place in pop history and yet the Swedish duo’s output was among the best of their career. Tracks such as “Anyone“, “Milk and Toast and Honey” and “Beautiful Things” showed elegance and maturity whilst staying firmly committed to the pop principles that brought them to the attention of a music crowd hungry for alternatives to late 80s acid dance and the early 90s indie scene. Then in 2002 the unthinkable happened. Marie’s life-threatening illness and subsequent recovery are well documented and in touchingly honest interviews the experience of Marie personally has been shared. Less acknowledged is the impact on the career path of Roxette. Months slipped into years of inactivity for the duo whilst Marie rightly recuperated, so the announcement a decade on from 2001’s “Room Service” and on the back of a highly successful European tour that Per Gessle and Marie Frederiksson were back in the studio and an album was imminent had fans buzzing once more.
“Charm School” (2011) and its companion-of-sorts (2012’s “Travelling“) fell short of promise and expectation. A competent if uninspiring set overall, led by the clunky “She’s Got Nothing On (But the Radio)“, it delivered a clutch of hidden gems for the avid listener such as “Speak to Me” (particularly in its “Bassflow Remake” mix) and the serene “Sitting on Top of the World“. It served best however as a reference point signposting the listener to a more rewarding back-catalogue. With such highs and lows in the last decade, this new era is met with trepidation and restrained hope. Any concern or anxiety was soothed by the reassuringly familiar yet thoroughly modern lead single from the new album – the soaring, anthemic ballad “It Just Happens“. Hot on its heels comes the album; Roxette’s 10th studio collection “Good Karma” and the verdict is that this is a very good pop album indeed. Fresh, vibrant and bristling with vitality, it is a bold statement of intent from an act who many had consigned to history that they have more to offer and the rewards are here for the taking be you a new listener or long-standing fan.
1. “Why Don’tcha” opens with mid-tempo jangly guitar pop that is the closest this album comes to its immediate predecessors – rootsy, organic and uncomplicated. Evoking sunny days, frivolity, and a hint of The Bangles in their heyday – albeit with Per taking lead vocal duties. This is an understated opener complete with handclaps and what sounds like a kazoo solo that is pleasant enough but does little in preparing the listener for the rest of what follows.
2. As sweeping ballad “It Just Happens” bursts forth you get a sense of that first track being something of an oddly endearing curveball. On its surface this is the kind of classic power ballad that Roxette can knock out in their sleep, yet further listens reveal the subtle flourishes such as the sudden drop before the chorus in the modern production that bring it bang up to date. To a wall-of-sound backing and harmonies of “You fall in love” Marie declares “It Just Happens“. Accompanied by the quite beautiful storytelling of the video this is a simple and very effective take on the universal theme of the impact of unexpectedly falling for someone. There is a sense by this point that Per and Marie are unfurling the layers on something quite new and unexpected for Roxette. They reel us into familiar territory with slight glimpses at something more now and sure enough within the first minute of the following track we have been treated to the big reveal.
3. “Good Karma” is the title track with clever nods to former glories such as 1991’s “Fading like a Flower (Every Time You Leave)“. A dramatic piano riff opens proceedings and crunching guitar drops into the first verse with verve and intent, capturing the essence of 1991’s eleven million selling “Joyride” album in just a few bars. Their 1995 hits package boldly demanded ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ and on “Good Karma” that is exactly what is achieved as the sublime and atmospheric verses (with stunning production detail) give way as the infectious chorus surges forth. It is a towering power pop chorus reminiscent of the kind of iconic early 80s stalwarts Hall & Oates and just as infectious.
4. The early 80s of a very different kind are an influence on the throbbing, propulsive electro-stomper “This One” All shimmering space-age synths and laser beams. Sonically this has one foot in 1980 and another in the production works of Richard X (think Rachel Stevens‘ 2005 “Come and Get It” collection). By the time the chorus returns, a glam-rock beat is making its presence felt. Another track with hit single written all over it, not least for the excellent remix potential.
5. The drama edges up a notch on mildly menacing intro to languid juggernaut “You Make it Sound so Simple“. Around heavy piano licks the synths crunch and reverberate. Per opens with “The world looks complicated, the universe so frustrated; I wish I was blind” as a commentary on the negative impact of living in a busy technological-age world; exposed to so much of what goes on around us. Marie’s detached, near-robotic intoning of the phrase “You make it sound so simple” on the chorus proves an effective counterpoint to Per’s more emotive verses. An unconventional love song extolling the benefit of having someone who can be the antithesis to an imposing and intimidating outside world.
6. “From a Distance” is another mid-tempo affair with a chorus that just washes over you like honey. Marie’s vocal shines throughout on the chorus assuring us that “everything looks perfectly fine, from a distance”. After feasting on the busy soundscapes of the last three tracks, the more straightforward pop song is a welcome shift in gear. Beautiful in its simplicity yet as ethereal strings and synths swirl around a subtle guitar it feels like a distant cousin of some of the more poignant, reflective moments on Madonna’s “Ray of Light” album.
7. “Some Other Summer” is a track some may be already familiar with given its release in 2015. This album version is redone and more faithful to Roxette’s pop sensibilities. An Ibiza inspired floor-filling celebration of the sunny season with sombre and reflective undertones. To his credit, Per resists any temptation to throw out repetitive, meaningless lyrics and it is the themes of loss and reconciliation in the song that elevate it beyond the conventional pop bangers that have littered the music scene in recent years. “Some other summer, you will do better, oh, the crash will make you strong”. This is a track that in three efficient minutes utilises a relentless beat, Latino flavoured rhythms and the occasional vocoder to seduce you out onto the dancefloor to lose all control while at the same time stirring a warm feeling of nostalgia. Parts of this recall Pet Shop Boys “Domino Dancing” in the percussion and harmonies. It is another track on “Good Karma” that would hold its own on any Greatest Hits collection.
8. Tinged with melancholia, earnest longing, and dripping with exquisite melodies “Why Don’t You Bring Me Flowers?” is an album highlight and one of the most accomplished ballads that Roxette have produced thus far. An achingly restrained and hypnotic delivery in Marie’s vocal and piano accompaniment is soon joined by swirling flourishes that fall like raindrops as the instrumentation build and swell to a dramatic crescendo. Stabbing strings and an earworm backing vocal harmony make this like Enya-on-Adrenalin. The lyrics are few but highly evocative: “I will throw the past on the fire, I will sing you to sleep when you’re tired, When the summer’s turning small, I’ll buy you a sweater for the fall”. If there is one aspect in which this piece of music falls short, it is that at a running time of 3:32 it leaves too soon just as Marie’s truly wonderful vocal makes way and the orchestra is let loose taking centre stage. Until a longer version of this sees light of day the repeat button will get a hammering. In a similar vein to the likes of Freiheit’s “Keeping the Dream Alive” and Erasure’s “Am I Right?” this is a song with enough sparkle that if released in December would sail up the festive charts despite being completely unrelated to Christmas.
9. Following a track like “Why Don’t You Bring Me Flowers?” was never going to be an easy task, and “You can’t do this to me Anymore” suffers as a result. There is real potential in the production and backing but when Per’s gristly vocal kicks in with a rather trite lyric (courtesy of Per’s propensity for rhyming couplets) there is a sense of lost opportunity which is barely recovered by Marie’s arrival for the chorus. It is a shame as there is plenty to hold attention in the music and again the production is brimming with detail. A more courageous and successful move may have been to remove the singing in the verses altogether and call it an interlude.
10. The closest we get to rocking out is on penultimate track “20 bpm” – on which Gessle taking the lead vocal proves more successful. An everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach (echo; reverb; whispered backing; crashing machinery) and choppy stop / start guitar riffs a-la Girls Aloud give the track some thrust and again there is enough here for it to be a perfectly passable, if uninspiring album track.
11. Roxette have mastered the art of closing an album, and here the sublime “April Clouds” sits alongside the likes of “Listen To Your Heart“, “Perfect Day” and “Beautiful Things“. Piano and strings effortlessly glide forth as Marie beseeches “Stay forever, stay a while” before an acoustic guitar delicately references Marie’s folk beginnings and it all opens out to a widescreen cinematic lighters-aloft chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on a movie soundtrack for that final scene as the two leads stroll off into the distance – slowly fading from view. “It’s been a good time, the best there ever was for me”, Marie sings – the use of past tense resonating strongly here and not solely in the narrative of this tale of a life post-relationship. It is a suitably elegant end to proceedings and draws to a close with Marie singing “I wish you the best” in a way that stirs an eerie sense of finality which feels as though it goes beyond the album you have just been listening to.
The “XXX” tour which was planned to continue alongside this album abruptly ended with a statement from Marie & Per that due to Marie’s health, Roxette’s days as a touring act are sadly over. On basis of “Good Karma” we can only hope this doesn’t extend to recording of new material as this is the sound of a pair revitalised, reinvigorated and at their most relevant since the halcyon days of “Joyride“. This is no surprise given Gessle’s assertion that they wanted this time to revisit the “Look Sharp!” and “Joyride” eras for that classic Roxette sound whilst incorporating current production techniques to give it a fresh and modern edge. “Good Karma” stylistically sits alongside those two albums as the best and most cohesive bodies of work Per and Marie have produced. If this does turn out to be their parting gift, it’s a lovingly crafted, beautifully wrapped and intelligently presented collection that embraces the current music scene while staying true to the considerable legacy of Roxette as one of the world’s most formidable pop acts of the last 30 years.
Here is a full-length video of the new Roxette single “It Just Happens“:
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
Highlights: Good Karma; Why Don’t You Bring Me Flowers; This One; From A Distance; April Clouds.