WHEN YOU FIRST HEAR HIS SONGS ABOUT dead passengers or sleeping on needles, you might picture young Sondre Lerche in the back of some classroom, silently scribbling notes to himself. You’d imagine him skinny, too talented, the sensitive-artist type, humming Cole Porter, Elvis Costello and ’60s Brazilian pop as though they’ve been competing on TRL all week — the kind of introverted weirdo who’ll get his shins kicked and his books slapped into the mud, while knowing that justice will play out in the end.
What’s that justice? One example: a section of frat-hole bullies twice Lerche’s size, gazing upon him like pimply girls during his recent performance in New York City. Another: his sensational, addictive debut album, Faces Down.
Lerche sets the record’s scene. “Because all of the songs were written while I was in school, they end up resembling the kind of community school is to a young boy in Norway.”
Bergen, to be exact, a left-coast city where Lerche probably came across the cooler nonchalance of local duo Kings of Convenience while he and his guitar were on the pub circuit — as early as age 14, and even on school nights. He eventually caught the ear of producer H.P. Gundersen, signed with Virgin Norway in 2000 and released two sought-after EPs before last year’s Faces Down, a tenaciously melodic album of alt-folksy pop and fully arranged, electronics-enhanced pomp. Darling ba-ba-bas notwithstanding, Faces features musical expressions so clever that they often belie Lerche’s teenage years. (He’s now 20.)
In fact, the album is a bit too clever, with lyrics that are often unnecessarily ironic, melodies suspiciously naive. Listen closer to the songs, prod Lerche about his boyhood muses, and you’ll start to remember from school that those picked-on sensitive types were too direly earnest to be clever. The truth: Lerche was the goddamn class clown.
“But maybe the clown was hiding the sensitive side,” Lerche suggests. “And now the clown is dead, and the poet is alive!” Oh, pipe down. You’re not fooling anyone anymore. “I’m not trying to,” he explains. “I’m just not interested in pushing my problems on the rest of the world. I want to tell people about my life, but, more importantly, about whatever life I can create in each of my songs. It doesn’t have to be real and full of swearing words — the grunge approach to writing lyrics.”
Leave the confessions for the dashboard; Lerche belongs in the company of the more interesting singer-songwriters: angst-free, no-bones-to-pick, incorrigible fiction makers. You would expect this from a guy who grew up on Burt Bacharach, Prefab Sprout, Norwegian ’80s heroes A-ha, the Beach Boys, Beck before the sea changed, and — granddaddy of the sweet nada — Cole Porter, whom Lerche uncannily impersonates with his springtime ditty “Modern Nature.”
Faces Down comes off as unique, though Web vendors may offer you links to contemporaries like Belle and Sebastian, Bright Eyes, Ben Lee, Ben Kweller, Badly Drawn Boy, Beulah and similar “B” boys, with Rufus Wainwright coming to mind whenever the piano keys hint at Lerche’s dandyish show-tuning. Older fans enjoy hearing Donovan in Lerche’s voice, but listen to “No One’s Gonna Come” and “Things You Call Fate,” and have fun with the idea of a Ziggy-era David Bowie visiting Earth to kick it James Taylor style.
“But Ziggy Stardust was hell,” says Lerche, insisting that he really enjoys Bowie’s “more poppy stuff, not the rocky stuff.” He’s also a devout fan of the High Llamas, which explains not only Faces Down’s occasional space-age, Stereolab-like effects and processing, but also the direct involvement of Llama Sean O’Hagan, who arranged the strings for three songs.
“I dream of touring one day with the string section,” says Lerche, who will wrap up his American tour here with just himself and one guitar change. Though at his New York gig he needlessly raced through his best song (“All Luck Ran Out”), his arresting riffage did create different lives for his album tracks — ebullient, more soulful, absolutely thrilling in wild, intermittent gusts.
“The best thing about the solo tour is that people will hear me taking these songs back to where they started. They were all written with the purpose of being sung by one person with a guitar.”
Expect maximum charm, too, as Lerche feigns bumpkin confusion, ushers the crowd through a sing-along as if quiet were indeed the new loud, and cracks several deadpan jokes. Looks like class is in session.
Sondre Lerche performs at the Knitting Factory, Monday, March 10.