Tradition dictates that your second album should be difficult, and often ultimately something of a disappointment too. But anybody expecting Röyksopp to follow tradition was going to be very disappointed indeed – fortunately, though, not in that way.
After a couple of years promoting 2001’s brilliant Melody AM, Röyksopp had retreated back into their wood cabins in the northern wilderness of Scandinavia (I hope this is true, anyway), and spent a couple of years
The Understanding kicks off with the beautiful piano riff of Triumphant, building gradually over four minutes. If there’s a single recognisable sound or element from the first album Melody AM then I don’t know what it is. Röyksopp were back, but they were also delivering something quite new and extraordinary.
New and extraordinary are also exactly the best two adjectives to use for the second track, lead single Only This Moment. Even to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it – it’s beautiful and euphoric, and really quite astonishing too. It’s also a great pop song. When the final verse arrives, it’s difficult not to feel the strangely evocative euphoria which this track evokes. Or maybe that’s just me.
This is a story which pervades through the whole album, and I can’t help but feel that describing every track might take a while and be rather full of hyperbole. Sombre Detune is beautiful; Follow My Ruin great too, with a smattering of eighties retro.
Which is not to say that this album doesn’t have its weaker points – 49 Percent and Circuit Breaker are both a little less stunning than their neighbours. But they’re weaker, not weak by any stretch of the imagination, and that is an important distinction. The sheer quality of this album is quite astonishing.
The middle pair are perfect examples of this – the appropriately named beautiful pop song Beautiful Day without You leads into what might be one of the best pieces of music ever recorded, What Else is There? featuring Karin Dreijer Andersson out of The Knife on vocals. Neither was unduly successful, but both were singles, and deservedly so.
The latter had a particularly creepy video too, although the visual style of the whole album was rather difficult to understand. On the sleeve, the band wear Venetian masks while they walk across a stormy beach towards an organ, and a girl floats, slightly ethereal, in the foreground. I’ll have to let you work that one out for yourself.
Meanwhile Alpha Male turns up, the delightful eight minute instrumental which carries us into the final phase of the album. It pulses and gently grows, and almost sounds as though it’s going to go on forever.
The next track is Someone Like You, another wonderful song, conceptually and lyrically very simple, but layered with the typical Röyksopp levels of musical complexity. The only thing I’d really say is that to me it always has the slight air of a closing track, rendering the two that follow a little unnecessary.
So the extremely soft Dead to the World is a surprise bonus, as is the lovely Tristesse Global, which rounds things up excellently, bringing the album pretty much back to where it started.
In many ways it’s hard to find words to do The Understanding justice, as it’s such a perfectly formed album. Just a matter of years after its predecessor, Röyksopp had taken their sound and turned it entirely on its head, and not for the last time.
Your best bet is to track down the double CD version of The Understanding, as it includes a bonus CD with five extra tracks, all of which are pretty good.