As one of the more modestly rewarding contemporary Swedish groups, Shout Out Louds have been on an upward trajectory, seemingly headed toward some transcendent pop moment. Their debut, Howl Howl Gaff Gaff, bore too much filler to reward returning listeners, but despite the album’s inconsistencies, its singles stood out strongly enough to cement the band as one to watch. On the other hand, 2007’s Our Ill Wills was a near-masterpiece. Moving away from contemporary indie hallmarks, Shout Out Louds proudly embraced their inner mope, even venturing so far as to title one song “Meat Is Murder.” But for all the Smiths referentialism, the album’s best moments were fully the band’s own. On songs like “Impossible” and “Tonight I Have To Leave It,” Shout Out Louds created an immersive mood of swirling, large-scaled melancholy. Their continued progress was heartening.
While it appeared as if their growth spurt was going to continue unabated when the band announced the release of their new album with new track “Walls,” the result — Work — finds the band unfortunately taking as many steps backward as forward. Of course, there are still plenty of memorable moments; the skittish “Fall Hard” is a classic bit of danceable twee-pop, and “1999” is as sentimentally evocative as anything off Our Ill Wills. And whenever the record begins to settle into a dull rut, a well-calibrated chorus cuts through the chaff. But it’s difficult to shake the overall sense of mediocrity, even with the occasional moments of unbridled enjoyment. Not that the band fails to prove their worth; there are certainly worse fates than being an inimitable singles act, but the potential that Shout Out Louds possess only frustrates the set expectations.
What makes Work ultimately less satisfying than its predecessors is the reduction of scope. Promotional materials have made mention of the deliberate “[stripping] away all of the bells and whistles of previous efforts,” but that intentional streamlining runs contrary to the group’s strengths. Without the cover of sweeping drama, the symptoms of creative anemia are all too visible. Sure, Phil Ek’s production is as crisp and effective as ever, but while it emphasizes immediacy, it also draws attention to the repetitive, redundant elements of these songs. Despite whatever technical precision the band displays, they have lost much of their former vibrancy. Shout Out Loud’s best songs jangle, bouncing with tangible, youthful energy, but those moments are too few on this album. For such a concise, modest record, Work is exhausting. In that sense, it more than lives up to its title.