It’s Terje Time

With an irresistible, idiosyncratic album, the Norwegian DJ makes disco cool and uncool all over again.

Photo courtesy of Rene Passet

The advertising for Random Access Memories promised a throwback to the glitzy disco era, and Daft Punk delivered on that promise. Sort of. The album includes work from Nile Rodgers, songwriter and guitarist for ‘70s favorites Chic; features a track with Giorgio Moroder, producer of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love;” and sounds like it costs millions of dollars. It is a perfectly polished luxury product. But this makes for an airless and overly tasteful record, excepting a few tracks like “Get Lucky.” We can be thankful, then, for Todd Terje (“tare-jay”), who has dropped an album that captures the same fun that made Daft Punk popular in the first place.

It’s Album Time was released on April 7th on the Norwegian DJ and producer’s own label, Olsen Records, and sounds like what Random Access Memories would have in the best of all possible worlds. It is a collection of energetic, disco-inflected dance tracks. The rhythms are inventive, the textures warm, and the colors bold — it’s perfect for summer driving or impromptu parties. It’s easy to love even for those who shy away from electronic dance music, despite featuring only a single track that hews closer to traditional pop by featuring vocals. Not one person I know has been able to resist the charms of Terje’s music.

This is partially because Terje has a knack for an infectious melody, even when that melody recalls artists and genres that are less than cool. Reviewers of the record consistently mention music you might find in an older relative’s collection. Pitchfork, for example, spots flashes of film soundtrack composer Henry Mancini (most famous for the Pink Panther theme) and “cocktail lounge” music. More than one write-up compares it to “prog,” perhaps the uncoolest genre of all. Terje’s unstudied enthusiasm for music that is marginalized by pop culture gives It’s Album Time a devil-may-care exuberance. Putting a leisure suit on the cover was a punk-rock move.

But much of the album resembles, at least superficially, the disco of Terje’s Norwegian contemporaries Prins Thomas and Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, who have been popular in indie circles for years. This makes it worth asking why It’s Album Time warrants the rapturous attention it has been receiving.

The record distinguishes itself by the lightness of its touch and the razor sharpness of its composition. The second track, “Leisure Suit Preben,” begins with a loping bass line. As he introduces other sounds — plinking synths, wobbling guitar, stately harpsichord — Terje demonstrates a genius for arranging elements that seem to have no business going together. About halfway through, the track pauses and then starts up again with a pulsing disco bass line. As Terje builds it up again with an entirely different set of sounds, the rhythm slowly morphs from infectious but weird to barely danceable. The end has the same effect that an electronic calypso cover of Radiohead’s crooked-sounding “Pyramid Song” might — you want to move, but can only move like a malfunctioning robot. It is undeniably fun, but not a track for dance clubs.

Such attention to the contexts in which we listen is another reason for the appeal of Terje’s album. He understands that dance music can be at its best when it uses repetition to hypnotic effect, and he has made a lot of music that does just that (see his last EP, Spiral). But a record that included only music like that would likely bore most of us as we sit at home or on a long commute. Instead, Terje adds variety to It’s Album Time by including a number of tracks like “Leisure Suit Preben” that light up the brain’s pleasure center with the liveliness of their sound, the speed at which they transform, and the cleverness of their structures. Even when, late in the album, Terje includes some longer, more danceable singles, they appeal to the brain and ear as much as the body. It’s Album Time draws people who don’t usually listen to electronic dance music because Terje has designed it to be listenable in the varied contexts of everyday life — it even adds an aura of fun to mundane chores like folding laundry or washing dishes.

Like all the best things (e.g. scotch and Lolita) Terje’s record seems an unlikely candidate for success. It’s so cheesy that it’s cool. It’s part prog, part ’50s cocktail-party music, and part disco. It’s a dance record that is sometimes hard to dance to. But Terje’s risk-taking paid off, because all the peculiarities hang together beautifully. This makes It’s Album Time feel like a magic trick and gives Terje’s music a distinct voice. And, since music (especially electronic dance music) can often feel like a bland and anonymous lifestyle product, a real voice is something almost anyone can enjoy.

Sean Higgins is the only Sean Higgins who lives and writes in Portland, ME. He did not help Michigan win the 1989 national college basketball championship. He can’t even sink a three-pointer.