“It’s very, very hard to make something sound simple,” Eirik Glambek Bøe said in a press release announcing Kings of Convenience‘s new album, Peace or Love. He speaks of songwriting as a form of wizardry, a process of letting go of established creative patterns to embrace the magic of a certain moment. That the Norwegian duo’s first record in 12 years – only their fourth in their two-decade career – exudes an air of effortless ease is evidence of their meticulous approach to production, like the return of a familiar breeze at the end of a long, hard winter. If it’s hard to tell whether the atmosphere is entirely natural or carefully fabricated, that barely matters: the feeling is so finely rendered and palpable that the songs nevertheless take on a transportive quality.
The magic of Kings of Convenience’s best music lies in Bøe and Erlend Øye’s ability to make its simple pleasures feel both refreshing and irresistible. Peace or Love, like their previous releases, barely eschews the ‘easy-listening’ tag, yet the duo’s earnest take on the genre is appealing enough to convince you what they’re offering is a unique proposition. And more often than not, it is, particularly when they infuse their palatable brand of folk-pop with touches of bossa nova and jazz. The album’s most percussive songs are also its liveliest: ‘Fever’, the only track here with a drum beat, is as light and airy as the whole affair, but the higher-pitched vocals and slight shift in tone are enough to subtly convey the emotional rush of the lyrics (“I got fever too/ Of a different kind, it makes me wild/ It makes me crave to be with you.” ‘Catholic Country’, a co-write with British folk trio The Staves and one of two duets with Feist (who also sang on 2004’s Riot on an Empty Street), also stands out thanks to the sheer infectiousness of its groove.
The other Feist duet is ‘Love Is a Lonely Thing’, a gentle, heartfelt song that cuts to the core of the album’s romantic themes, which here are communicated less through its sombre lyrics (“Love is pain and suffering/ Love can be a lonely thing”) than the distance that seems to separate the two voices. Even at its least affecting, Peace or Love unfolds with elegance and warmth, each song a delicate dance that will light up differently depending on the environment where it’s heard. But as soothing and lovely as the overall effect is, one can’t help but feel like the smoothness of the production can detract from the maturity and complexity of some of these songs. The album arrives at the end of a tumultuous 12 years for the duo, and their attempt to address the messiness of middle-age on what is otherwise their most easygoing effort to date – particularly on ‘Rocky Trail’ and ‘Killers’ – isn’t always successful.
But then there is ‘Washing Machine’, one of the Kings’ most subtly compelling compositions and a somewhat unusual ending for the album. There’s a searching, vulnerability quality to the arrangement and vocals that rarely cracks through to the surface elsewhere, and the titular metaphor is striking: “I lost count how many times I’ve tumbled ’round inside your washing machine/ Hung myself out to dry to regain some of my self-esteem.” Then the song ends abruptly, foregoing the sense of closure the entire album seems to be built for. Still, it’s pleasant enough to ensure you’ll want to return to these sounds, however long it takes to for them to rematerialize. As they sing on ‘Love Is a Lonely Thing’, “Once you’ve known that magic, who can live without it?”