Henric De La Cour
This one’s a puzzler, no doubt about it. Sweden’s Henric De La Cour comes with a resume that falls onto the floor and rolls out the door behind him, emerging from the same convoluted synth-pop/rock lineage which produced the pastel heaven of Kite’s EPs as well as the blood-soaked drama of his solo debut. It’s utterly unfair to look at Mandrills as a sophomore effort given his run in the biz, but at the same time it does feel like the second point in the new phase of a career, and is also subject to the odd mix of contractions and expansions we expect from breakthrough acts on their second kick at the can.
The ties which bind Mandrills together as an album are far more mercurial and ephemeral than the gothic splendour of Henric’s self-titled 2011 debut. To wit, the record feels like a balancing act throughout, with tracks forever walking a line between being lavish, production-first showcases and being full compositions from someone who’s been releasing records for nearly twenty years. Similarly, the tone taken by Henric both in lyrics and delivery is almost always hovering on a boundary between vulnerability and defiance. Opening track “Mandrill” initially feels like one of those production-first tracks, a lattice-work of tight gothic keyboards and vocal exercises crawling up and down the castle walls. It’s only after half a dozen listens that its more subtle but ultimately simple structural charms emerge, not unlike a Bach organ piece or a first wave black metal tune (remember that De La Cour’s paid homage to the style, if not content of that genre in the form of a Venom cover, and there’s a tune named after none other than “Blackie Lawless” here). Henric’s still a savvy pop sampler, though, slowly morphing the immortal intro to “And Then He Kissed Me” into “Hank Psycho” to suit his own composition’s needs.
The first two songs to be released to the public, “Chasing Dark” and “Shark” do help the listener to triangulate Mandrills‘ sound, but they’re also outliers, sitting at two extreme poles: dark modern rock and histrionic synthpop, respectively. The former gives us a stark but not unsentimental trot down memory lane, accompanied by any and all new post-punk contemporaries you might care to name, but always presided over by Henric’s strange mix of steel and reflection. “Shark” is something else entirely, all Stephen Merritt style dialogue between the overconfident pursuing wooer and the shattered and recalcitrant subject of their affection; ie, exactl the sort of stuff for which a gushy synthpop number like “Shark” is tailor made. The rest of the album seems to fall into territory lying between these points: the insular and frantic tension of “Sirens, No Harbour” or the sprawling flush of “Main Vein” (okay, seriously, does that phrase mean the same thing in Sweden as it does in North America, or is someone pranking poor Henric?).
Mandrills can’t replicate the same splashy entrance on the extra-continental stage executed by its predecessor, and wisely shifts its focus to more deeply locked in grooves, production tics, and vocal shadings which slowly arise over multiple listenings. These may not kick down dancefloor doors like “Dracula” did, but they’re more than a worthy follow-up to those already won over, and newcomers willing to let tunes simmer and stew for a few listens should eventually figure out what all the initial fuss was about. Solid stuff.