Album: Lene Marlin – “Playing my game” (1999)

I’m not entirely sure why I was so determined to give this album a good listen. She doesn’t appear to be any different from other female singer-songwriters of the time, and I was never in love with “Sitting down here” at the time particularly. But my inner Scandophile was alerted to a big label push for this Norwegian singer, and I picked up the album. That was 12 years ago, and while I never really gave it much time, a surprising number of these tracks felt familiar to me. But would that be for all the wrong reasons? Oh intrigue!

Before I forget, I just found out that Lene wrote the title track to Rihanna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad”, well I never!

08 Sitting down here – Well, if you’ve heard any Lene song, it’s likely to have been this one. What a upbeat radio-friendly track, I love it already! But hang on, this is lyrically pretty bleak despite its sunny chorus. A strange relationship here, sounds like she’s trying to shake off some bad guy, or even more ominously she sweetly sings “I’ve learned to get revenge and I swear you’ll experience that someday”. Okay… Anyway it’s an intriguingly dual-purpose song there, and I guess this is totally lost on the radio stations that play this with surprising regularity.

07 Playing my game – For those of you looking for upbeat-sounding ditties like Sitting down here, you’ll be left wanting, I’m afraid. The title track is more representative of the album (well it should be really), with a sparsely miserable track. Almost self-loathingly depressed lyrics, a bit of a “leave me alone, I’m not worth it” feel to it. I feel bad that she’s able to come up with stuff like this, she was only 18 when this album originally came out. Her vocals are gentle and distinctive, easily treading that line between boring and forced that similar artists struggle to tread. Not something I’m ever in a rush to listen to, but it’s pleasantly undemanding.

09 Unforgivable sinner – Now this was the other big single, curiously not as big in the UK after her inital breakthrough with Sitting Down Here. It’s a more straightforward effort, the tone (and title) of this song are unmistakably on the attack. Targetted this time is another no-good boy, whose crime is left ambiguous. Either the girl involved is now free of this guy, or she’s dead (I suspect the former, but you never know). A great tempo, memorable melody, it just FEELS like a hit doesn’t it? Lovely stuff.

08 Flown away – More mysterious lyrics, very poetic but I haven’t a clue. It’s a very laid-back track, not quite the melancholy of the title track, although her vocals always seem laced with sadness somehow. It’s quite a dreamy soundscape, a few brief flashes of piano, it’s quite a touching little riff, to a really pretty song.

06 Way we are – Not sure if this is progress really, another slowie (let’s just say from now on these songs have quite sparse arrangements). This is where the lack of energy really shows, and instead of the subtle beauty of “Flown away”, there’s just a pretty mediocre downtempo. The chorus is a bit more solid than we’ve been used to, but I’m not really bothered about hearing this again.

06 So I See – Oh hush my mouth, here’s some early 00’s midtempo pop song backing, how about that? Lene’s playing the quiet storm again, she’s annoyed but lets the lyrics do the talking, rather than the upbeat backing or the pretty flaky vocals. I wonder what she’s like when she’s really mad, like when she stubs her toe or something. Does she quietly tell off the object she kicked? They try their best to make the chorus into a serviceable pop hook, but it doesn’t quite make it.

05 Maybe I’ll go – More ghostly miserable balladry now, but fortunately it seems to be more like Flown Away. Teen angst time, and poor Lene is having a tough time taking shit from some people (God, I hope she never reads this, I’d be completely the same). Her vocals are nice enough, even if they struggle a little on a few melodic points. But the song feels like we’ve heard it already, several times, on this album! I can’t really remember this one after it’s played.

07 Where I’m headed – Oh an upbeat midtempo? Well it’s at least a change. Actually this feels quite similar to Sitting Down Here, musically. Lyrically things are more positive, Lene just wants a change of scenery, and doesn’t want her life to stagnate. I’m sure we can relate to this, and it’s a straightforward upbeat song, I can see why they tried this out as a single. The little breakdown with the violin section is rather lovely, and we even get key-change, who’d have seen it coming? I don’t really like the “Pass by, don’t da-are to sto-op” bit, her vocals don’t really handle those bits too well, and makes the chorus sound bigger than her voice, which is a bad idea.

07 One year ago – An acoustic guitar plunks away in the background, and some strange echoey effects on Lene’s voice makes me think it sounds like a Shakira downtempo, what a strange feeling! She’s gently berating someone on breaking a girl’s heart. It’s like a very downtempo equivalent to Pink’s “Who Knew”, without any of the fire. The backing does really help this one out, and I think Lene’s vocals fit the track better than some others on the album. Listenable.

08 Place nearby – Well just for a change, let’s play this one out with a minimalist ballad. This one really does strike me down though, it’s about sitting by someone’s deathbed, watching them finally die after them saying that “Heaven is a place nearby”. Very touching stuff, and perfectly fits with the barely-there production. Not too sentimental, just pitched perfect. A bit of a downer to go out on, but it’s not like this album has been puppies and rainbows is it? That sad tinkling piano really sticks in my mind.

Well, that was a barrel of laughs wasn’t it? :(. There is a place and time for these sort of albums, and while it’s not (and was never intended to be) a massively commerical album, it seems to accomplish the mission. It pays the bills with a small bunch of radio-friendly singles, while Lene gets out some of her teen angst on the less commercial moments (of which there are many). I’m intrigued to see if she ever moved on to more positive-sounding music, but I might need a bit of time to gather my emotional strength before I listen to a whole Lene album again.

Keepers for the iPod: Sitting down here, Unforgivable Sinner, Flown away, Place nearby

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