Leprous’ sixth studio album, Pitfalls, gives it all away in its first song’s opening lines:
All of my stories are below
Beneath the surface you cannot grow
Curled and naked, I defer
to shaky thoughts all in a blur
Every single fear I’m hiding
Every little childhood memory
Every single fear I’m hiding
Every little childhood memory
And I will lie
Keep it all together
Anxiety, man. The scourge of our times. If you’re a human being, you know exactly what that means. You agree and reflect on your own experience of it, or, perhaps, you scoff and bemoan the fragility of those generations that aren’t your own. Maybe you see some truth in it, albeit incomplete, because depression, man. Anxiety, after all, can be mere prelude to the crushing realization that nothing matters anyway, emotional disconnect the only genuine buffer against tidal waves of expectation and unfulfilled promise, and that may be the defining sickness of 21st Century Man (take a moment to recall the prescience of King Crimson).
Einar Solberg, at least for a period during the last couple years, found himself struggling with the latter. In press materials and interviews he’s described the process through which he coped with anxiety and depression, choosing to take hold of whatever version of himself and the world dominated a given day and turn it into art.
Music, and art more generally, has always been crafted from the full spectrum of emotion, the more extreme aspects often making for the more tantalizing pieces, so Solberg’s venture here is certainly nothing new. Pitfalls succeeds because it feels both honest and relatable. In essence, Solberg owns his struggle as earnestly as he shares it.
First, the music is deceptively simple, restrained, deferential. This is a record that feels like a showcase for Solberg’s vocals. And sure it is. Every Leprous album is. But it’s especially so on Pitfalls, at least for the first few listens. As the experience unfolds, the amazing vocal performance that dominates at the surface relinquishes some of its hold on the listener, revealing the depth of the music beneath and behind. Even that idea, though, implies naively that the vocals and music are somehow separate. Rather, there’s a tenuous, yet critical, connection, constantly pushing and pulling between the two as if toward some shared destination but by drastically different paths. Notice in that opening track, “Below,” Solberg’s tired and melancholic vocals dragging themselves along as drums and guitar bounce gaily beneath, an outward smile keenly aware and set against the malaise it belies.
Which presents the second aspect of Pitfalls’ conceptualization of Solberg’s experience; that is, Solberg’s experience. In other words, the songs are analogous to what it means to be Einar Solberg, the person. There’s a presentation, what he calls the facade in “Below” and “Foreigner.” The latter is what might be called Pitfalls’ rocker, a vigorous anthem built from tension and propulsive rhythm, a courageous call to battle for a man who comes to understand that he does not know himself. Then there’s also an experience behind the facade, the truth, if one is willing to accept that idea. Because “Foreigner” is upbeat in the way of a tragic hero’s story, in which the fight is inspiring and victory well-earned, even as the battle is self-made and unending. And yet, again, the facade and what it conceals are not at odds but complementary, each sustaining the other.
There’s also the idea of what Solberg used to be, compared to his idea of what he is now, and how this is reflected in what Leprous used to be. Of course, Leprous came to prominence as a progressive heavy metal band, even if they’ve refused to be confined by anything so trifling as a genre tag. And now Solberg has gone out of his way to assert that there’s nothing about this new album that can be considered to be Heavy Metal. But that isn’t true, Einar! Sure, the obvious trappings of metal are all but gone, but the bones are still there, vestiges of the heaviness from which the band’s foundation was built. “At the Bottom” is a fantastic example. It opens with keyboard, bass, and percussion lines that could easily have been pulled from a late-80s Quiet Storm radio archive, but explodes itself into a gigantic chorus that owes as much to Heavy Metal as it does to late night lonely souls. The aforementioned “Foreigner” and stark, experimental album closer, “The Sky is Red,” do much to recall those metal roots, as well, especially the latter and its scraping clatter soaked in bombastic choir.
Finally, there’s the notion that Solberg’s presentation has a clearer purpose, even more pragmatic than that of the facade. If you pay attention to the lyrics (and you don’t necessarily have to, as Solberg addresses this directly in pressers and interviews), it’s apparent that outward appearances, attention to the surface of things, provide not only ample buffer against the scrutiny of others, but also an effective means of avoiding what is real within one’s self and, ultimately, the truth that we are all that we control. The real kicker of that last bit is that it means we do control ourselves; our outcomes are dependent most entirely on our chosen responses to those things in our lives over which we do not have control.
Solberg knows this and says so in just about every song on Pitfalls. The most obvious and wonderful example is “Observe the Train.” From the very first notes, astute (and even many not-so-astute) listeners, will recognize the homage to Radiohead’s “No Surprises” in those pensive ringing tones and the bare-bones songwriting. “No Surprises” is an abstract lamentation of modern life and a plea for quiet that entertains a thinly veiled suicide solution. This is a reflection of the perspective that we have virtually no control outside of choosing to die. Solberg’s take on the need for quietude in these frantic times is firmly rooted in the relatively progressive and healthy notion that he can make the quiet within himself when he needs it. “Observe the Train” is a meditative song that celebrates mindfulness with airy lightness, under-girded by a determined discipline reflected subtly in a dry, martial snare drum beat.
If it hasn’t been obvious to this point, Pitfalls is full of all kinds of sounds. Given the context, it’s probably not a bad guess that the musical variety reflects what Solberg found to be most comforting when he was feeling his worst. Is there a listener out there that wouldn’t be able to relate? “Observe the Train” makes it kind of obvious that Radiohead is a favorite balm, but just one of many. Just about every track sounds as if Solberg fell asleep while writing songs for Leprous and dreams of childhood favorites bled into his psyche, then later onto the music paper. “By My Throne” is pure pop-Leprous but ratchets even that up a notch by channeling ABBA like sunlight glinting off of Swedish blonde hair; “Alleviate” could honestly win whatever stupid reality TV music contest show is hot this week and, on the strength of the songwriting and Solberg’s performance, do it without losing a shred of dignity; and an array of musical salves can be found throughout, from string arrangements that recall the most epic heights of Elton John’s heyday to melodies born from choruses sung by George Michael and Wham! to the quiet strength of a Miyazaki film soundtrack reflected in the simplicity of plucked strings and a little blown bottle.
Of all the new and different things about Pitfalls, that last paragraph is about the ones most likely to divide fans. At first blush, obvious complaints are understandable; it’s too light, not heavy enough, too poppy, not metal or even progressive enough. Pitfalls is definitely lighter and poppier, but not to a fault. It’s also heavy in its way and most certainly progressive, just not the same way so much modern Prog is supposed to be progressive. And none of it’s actually new and different, anyway, but rather represents a longer stride than expected along the path Leprous has been on since they began. That the extra step was motivated by Solberg’s struggle with depression and anxiety makes sense, given the emotional depth and complexity of the record. All considered, the songs on Pitfalls suggest that, having gazed into the abyss, he has pulled himself back, even if he remains acutely aware that it is there.