A deeply divisive figure, Nils Bech has split the Oslo underground more starkly than most, with those taking sides increasing by the day as the hordes of the inquisitive are drawn to this camp curio. Formerly of distinctly tongue-in-cheek quartet Snuten, most notable for the cheesy lo-fi of the admittedly irrepressibly catchy ‘Easy’ (chorus: ‘it’s not easy being gay’), Bech’s current musical incarnation has seen him emerging from Oslo’s contemporary art scene, singing from atop a step-ladder, surrounded by the sculptures and paintings of his artist friends at exhibition openings, the gallery-goers, cross-legged on the floor, divided between awed worship and stifled laughter.
Bech ascribes his desire to present his music as a crossover between pop and art installation to a ‘flirtation’ with the theories on ‘the symbolic power of art’ advanced by the recently deceased social theorist Pierre Bourdieu. To many, however, his dancing is daft, his status within the art-world makes his success a textbook case of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’, and his singing is nothing short of embarrassing. For there’s the rub: Bech’s ‘Norwenglish’. A classically trained vocalist with a background in opera he may be, but there is no denying that Bech’s pronunciation on his debut full-length Look Back veers on the side of comical, and combined with his earnest choir-boy delivery the most lost-in-translation Eurovision memories are evoked by some, alongside, perhaps more cruelly, German electro-punks D.A.F., whose own garbled lyrics were intentionally parodic.
So for all the apparent art-world baggage, it is in fact Bech’s English that is the only audible stumbling block, and it is a curious one. Strangely the lyrics themselves cause no real problems; if they are occasionally clumsy they at least avoid the hollow clichés and recycled phrasings of so many Scandinavian singers who have perfected their Anglo-American drawls to a tee, and Bech’s position as a creative force within the global village of an art world that is increasingly international suggests there should be no reason for Bech’s English to lag behind the general youth populace to such an extent. Perhaps then, this pronunciation is, if not an affectation, at least deliberately exaggerated. Not for satiric purposes though. Some of the most celebrated (and discouragingly dense) writings of Bech’s beloved Bourdieu advance a theory of artistic autonomy that suggests that “‘pure’ works of art are not accessible except to consumers endowed with the disposition and the competence which are necessary for their appreciation” – in other words, ‘pure’ art should intentionally embrace the rejection of the commercialised masses; novel attributes that may alienate the many (just like Nils Bech’s English) are commendable both for their refusal to pander to existing taste and because they define the emerging artist. Could Bech be deliberately limiting his appeal?
The truth is though, that like the pop-diva of the moment Lady Gaga, whose artistic pretensions, evocations of Warhol and Grace Jones, and distinctive visual stylings and idiosyncrasies are merely distractions from the reality of her music: that it is just generic pop; strip away Nils Bech’s art-scene background, his image and the surrounding furore, and what we are left with is some pretty decent and accessible electro-pop. And whilst the voice has caused all that fuss and may provoke a chuckle at first, with repeated listens familiarity begets fondness, and Bourdieu’s maxim on the importance of novelty proves true: Bech’s music wouldn’t be half as interesting without his distinctive vocals, and his voice, which might at first have seemed shaky and risible, is discovered to sway instead between sultry provocation and wide-eyed prettiness, with a good dose of post-modern humour in-between.
The first half of the record is probably stronger, with a string of cracking singles showcasing Bech’s versatility. ‘Brown/Blue’ is a sweet love song that states its position in disarmingly simple terms – ‘I want to lean in’ Bech primly trills over swelling muted electronics and occasional chiming piano. His ear for a charming melody is ever-present, and his unashamed individuality and willingness to embrace the naïve make for a thoroughly enjoyable ride. ‘Contemporary Dancing’, a plea to dance schools everywhere to let boys participate, could come across as silly, but for all its ingenuousness it gains a kind of honest joy from being sung by a not quite grown-up boy who genuinely places solemn significance in the ability of dance to aid his own self-expression. Plus you’ll be humming that chorus for days.
Bech’s voice may be what grabs headlines, but the contribution of his musical collaborator Bendik Giske is considerable. A saxophonist with contemporary jazz trio Listen!, Giske both sets down the arrangements and produces here, and his deft handling of the musical accompaniment plays a major role in making Bech’s vocals seem appropriate. Warm saxophone loops, bursts of house synths, and chattering electronics lend the whole album a subtle vibrancy: on ‘Don’t Worry’ Bech’s dark swoon is bathed in percussive choirs as an ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ riff chugs along intermittently in the background, upbeat piano and angelic harmonies give way to bursts of Giske’s bouncing sax on the delightfully smooth ‘Curious Love’, ‘French Affairs’ recalls The Knife, and Eighties-tinged synths and pulsing electronics drive the guilty pleasure of pop-throwback ‘Space/Time’, a duet with Mirejam Shala, whose early-Kylie bubblegum vocals make Bech’s classical-tinged accompaniment sound wonderfully anachronistic.
The most fitting musical comparison to Look Back is probably Antony Hegarty’s contributions to Hercules And Love Affair’s self-titled debut – whilst Bech’s voice is not nearly as heart-stopping and often lacks control, both singers are marked by a cabaret influence and effeminate edge to their unusual vocals, combined with an unusually-phrased emotional forthrightness, all against a background of warm, horn-infused electronics. This similarity is probably most evident on this album’s titular highlight ‘Look Back’, as Giske’s saxophone builds into an electro disco stomp until Bech’s looping vocals overlay the chorus’ mantra in layers of danceable jubilation.
This is a record to enjoy rather than to fall in love with – despite the fact that Bech’s vocals are probably more palatable on the slower efforts it is the more upbeat songs that leave a lasting impression – but with repeated listens Bech’s lyrics and voice, whether tender and self-revealing or supercilious, just increase in charm, and the proximity of the whole affair to silliness just adds to the fun and makes Giske’s musical achievement in reigning it all in all the more impressive. This is posturing electro-pop of the highest order, and, contrary to expectation, you’re not a snob if you like it, you’re a snob if you don’t.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010