Album Review: Smerz – Believer

[XL; 2021]

Something is happening in Copenhagen. Between Erika de Casier’s Aaliyah-inspired R&B, Clarissa Conley’s magical folk, and Ydegirl’s baroque daydreams, the young women of Denmark are doing big things, and more critics would do well to take notice. Smerz is a duo from Oslo, Norway, but they spend enough time in Copenhagen to soak up the scene, and they get some help from their Danish friends here on their full-length debut, Believer

The new record is less club-oriented than previous releases, instead incorporating more violin and classical instruments to achieve a synthesis of classical and dance music that is occasionally inscrutable. The Smerz Spotify playlist “Believer world” contains a seemingly disparate array of influences for this record: French folk songs, Cassie, Lolina, 50 Cent, “Better Off Alone”. The thing is, Believer actually does kinda sound like these things put together, and the result is discordant.

Yes, Believer is weird, and it occasionally grates. It’s no surprise that Smerz dig Yves Tumor: “Believer” and other tracks recall the artist’s mix of pop with noisey instrumentals, but they don’t come off as successful as Yves’ (admittedly outstanding) last two albums. Here, the choppy synth freakout “Hester” sounds like a fucked-up homemade horror movie soundtrack, but offers little for the listener to hold onto. Then “Flashing” appears like a breakdown you’d hear near the end of some nonexistent Rihanna song, but it’s too stark to stick.

“Rap interlude” is a promising a capella cut that is over before you realize it – one of several brief tracks that fail to develop. At this point, more than half the album is over and Smerz have hardly taken us anywhere. “Glassbord” finally finds them singing over a tight beat (ayy), but it quickly dissipates into some field noise before returning only to highlight what feels like an out-of-place string solo.

“Missy” would be pointless except it serves as an intro to “I don’t talk about that much”, which may be Believer’s closest thing to a real song. With a driving, footwork-inspired beat and catchy vocal harmonies, it makes sense that this was released as a single. It strikes the balance of pop and art that listeners, if not Smerz, were looking for. The album ends with the lovely instrumental “Hva hvis” (“What if”). Then it’s over – what if, indeed!

Smerz in EP form seemed more fiery. 2017’s Okey was a strong and unique combination of pop and tech-house, while listening to 2018’s Have fun in its compact 28 minutes resulted in a kind of happy delirium. That release was all bass, and it went all-out before landing on the perfect “Bail on me”. But rather than finding a consistent feel, Believer’s songs push and pull against each other, and the end result leaves one feeling like not much ground has been covered. It’s bolder than most new albums in recent memory, especially coming from a label as big as XL, but too often their sound comes off as a bizarre experiment. They are capable of more.