Life is full of ironies, and in this case it happens to be The Understanding as the misunderstood album by iconic Norwegian band Röyksopp. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love everything the duo has released so far, and learning that this was considered a disappointment by most people who were expecting some sort of Melody A.M. Part 2 came as a shock to me.
I’ve always said that the only way to address any Röyksopp album is to detach yourself from any preconceived idea you might have based on what you’ve listened so far. No matter how awesome and incredible you might think their previous album was, if you are expecting the next album to be an extension of it, chances are you are going to be disappointed, and that’s exactly what I think happened to this album.
Melody A.M. was all about ambient and mellow electronic music at its best. A masterpiece, if you will. The Understanding, released 4 years later was on the other hand more about a blend of sophisticated electronic music with a glorious trip hop counterpart that raises this album to new and exciting heights.
Right from the beginning there’s a very noticeable difference between this and the prior. The whole album sounds a lot more elegantly presented, it constantly tries to push farther the boundaries set in the past, achieving a very interesting and more diversified listening experience. Whoever thought that the duo would stay in the comfort zone created by the previous album was obviously underestimating the imagination and hunger for new horizons they were looking for. Long story short, The Understanding is a completely different journey, and a very pleasant one.
Over the years I’ve noticed that this album suits your taste even when your listening habits are evolving. Five years ago I would come to this album whenever I was looking for catchy electronic tunes with some trip hop evoking moments on the side (Follow My Ruin or What Else Is There?), then two years ago I would be more into full electronic mode and would resort to tracks according to that (Sombre Detune, Only This Moment, Boys)… And lately I’ve been focusing on more mellow and minimalist experiences, and what a surprise, there’s also something for that in here (Someone Like Me, Dead To The World). And the funny thing is, you won’t notice that all those different moods are disguised as a whole album until much, much later, and it won’t happen to you until you get a firm grasp on every single track before you start to experiment on creating your own different listening paths by listening only a few selected tracks from this album. That’s what I call a replay value.
For those unwilling to spend that much time on an album, or those who can’t seem to find anything that special buried under the pretentious sound of The Understanding, there’s also instant gratification waiting for you (granted you like electronic music, that is). I would recommend the deluxe edition bonus disc, as it adds a few nice ambient / electronic tracks that are totally worth your time.
Outstanding tracks include What Else Is There?, with the always puzzling guest vocals by Karin Dreijer Andersson (The Knife, Fever Ray), it’s a track that will flip your world upside down. Trip hop and electronic music fuses here and beautifully complemented with Andersson’s vocals creates a strangely haunting and pleasant mysterious masterpiece. Kate Havnevik also has a brief guest performance in Only This Moment. I would give Follow My Ruin a place in the best tracks by this album, it is a very straightforward electronic / pop song, but it manages to slip into your subconscious and will remain there long enough. On the other hand, more downtempo oriented tracks include the whispering Someone Like Me, and the instrumental Boys (on the bonus disc).
Seven years later, I still believe that there’s some room for discoveries here. I know, there have been two more releases by Röyksopp after this that also demand my attention, but I can’t stop coming back to this from time to time, and there’s always something new that escaped me the time before. The Understanding is not an acquired taste, it is a blissful electronic journey that starts the moment you listen to it for the first time.