Lukas Graham were a Danish Soul-Pop band (named after their frontman, Lukas Graham Forchammer), falling more or less within the Adult Alternative genre umbrella, who had a handful of hits from their second album on the U.S. charts in 2016. From a content perspective, they were clearly aiming for the same niche as Twenty One Pilots had with their album Blurryface the year before. However, while Twenty One Pilots favored a kind of light Rap-Rock sound, Lukas Graham’s musical idiom was most heavily influenced by classic-era Motown acts such as the Miracles and the Temptations.
This self-titled release was originally their second album in their native Denmark, and was later adapted into their first international release, with a few songs dropped and a couple of interpolations from their first album included. This album has its flaws (we’ll get to them), but at its best, it contains some of the finest Adult Alternative music of the decade. Eight of the tracks are absolutely amazing, with a rich Motown-esque Soul sound and a depth of introspection and profundity that Twenty One Pilots never even approached.
The lead single, “7 Years”, got some backlash after a prominent internet critic with an irrational hatred for Adult Alternative called it the worst song of 2016, and a number of impressionable internet idiots took his pronouncement as the gospel truth. In reality, it is very probably the best hit song of that year (its only real competition for that title coming from Adele’s “When We Were Young”, another introspective retro-Soul track). The backlash it received can be in large part chalked up to the fact that the band’s frontman is white, Danish, and looks absolutely nothing like most people’s mental picture of a Soul singer, so the fact that he pulled off this sound so flawlessly threw a wrench into many people’s compartmentalized view of the role of ethnicity in music.
Other high points include the scorching “Take the World by Storm”, the glowing “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me”, and the bittersweet “Happy Home”. Particularly poignant is “Better Than Yourself (Criminal Mind Pt. 2)”, which relates the story of a real-life friend of Forchammer’s who wound up behind bars. The singer acknowledges that he knows his friend is guilty, but still loves and misses him and believes he is ultimately a good person. Less relevant to the album’s overall point is the breakup ballad “What Happened to Perfect”, but its melody is so exquisitely beautiful that it’s hard to complain.
The album dwells heavily on the then-recent death of Forchammer’s father, which is discussed most directly in the heartbreaking “You’re Not There”. And while Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface never really came to any resolution at the end, this album does, with “Funeral”, the singer’s exhortation to the people at his own wake to celebrate his life. This is a man who is satisfied with his life and who ultimately has no regrets, which is frankly a much more satisfying way to close out an album that the unresolved angst expressed at the end of Blurryface.
That said, the backlash this album got is not entirely undeserved. This album is a study in extremes: Its best moments scale sublime heights, but it also contains five of the worst songs I’ve ever heard on a Pop album.
It doesn’t help that the incredibly annoying “Mama Said” and the idiotic “Strip No More” were both released as singles. The former sounds like the most grating Jackson 5 pastiche imaginable, with its shrill vocals and infuriatingly perky melody. The latter is the narrative of a self-involved idiot who has convinced himself that a stripper is in love with him, and then acts betrayed when she leaves her job.
“Drunk in the Morning” (one of the aforementioned interpolations from their first album) isn’t much better. It’s possible to write sympathetic songs about calling someone in the middle of the night to ask for sex (look at Lady Antebellum’s classic “Need You Now”, for example), but this smug, self-satisfied gloat isn’t how you do it.
The two songs exclusive to the Danish version of this album are arguably even worse. “Hayo” is one of the most asinine songs of the decade (its message is essentially “Your girlfriend is a slut that’s cheating on you, and by the way I think that’s hilarious”). Meanwhile, “Playtime” is perhaps the most laughably unconvincing attempt at a sex song since the early Justin Bieber singles: at least with “Strip No More”, you could make a case that the band is somewhat aware of what an idiot the protagonist is, but no such hint of self-awareness is visible here.
Still, as wildly uneven as it is, this is nonetheless one of the most important albums of 2016, an immensely ambitious achievement that, say what you will about it, had a massive impact on almost everyone who listened to it. The fact that even the bad songs are spectacularly bad is, in its own way, just another tribute to the album’s level of ambition and intensity. In any case, in spite of its occasional clinkers, I can still unreservedly recommend this album to almost anyone…the sublime tracks more than make up for the bad ones, and it’s just such an obviously important album that anyone who has any interest in modern Pop music whatsoever should really hear it.