Understated Classics #12: Look Sharp! by Roxette

Happy Birthday!

No matter how intellectual one gets about these things, the primary function of music is to have fun. With this in mind it is a good time to turn to Roxette then, as they are almost always the epitome of fun.

I received Look Sharp! as a present for my ninth birthday. This was probably a bit young to fully understand all the emotions expressed on the record. It’s just as well that it is also crammed with the kind of pop confections that made “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” something of a band motto and made for a great introduction to the world of pop for a nine year old boy.

I remember Per Gessle’s vocal on The Look coming as something of a shock. I’d very much fallen in love with (or developed a boyish crush on) Marie Fredriksson’s voice on the singles that I’d heard on my radio. I should imagine that I was probably just one of thousands of young boys all over the world. However, despite the fact that she had bought some dude with funny hair along to the party (see all eighties movies where young boy falls awkwardly in love with hot older girl) I was soon loving The Look just as much as the other songs. As it turned out, I fell to my addiction to a “na na na na” chorus at the very first hit.

Next up is Dressed For Success, an absurdly good pop song that perhaps sounds a little more naff now than it did at the time. It doesn’t change the fact that it still makes me really happy when I listened to it. I think it meshed with those first furtive flicks through the lingerie section of the Kay’s catalogue, especially when you take the song literally. Of course only a nine year old would think that it is actually about getting dressed.

Then there is Sleeping Single, a song that I think is rather undervalued in the Roxette catalogue. It is really catchy and is yet another song that makes more sense now than it did back then. The meaning of lines like “the midnight chills I get feel so rough / when the bed is big enough for both of us” began to make more sense on repeat listens as a teenager (and perhaps after listening to the Joyride album, which is a little more upfront than its predecessor).

The magic formula…

The great thing about Look Sharp! is that even on songs that are quite sad (like Sleeping Single) the arrangements often prevent the songs from becoming overly soppy and saccharine. Again Joyride is more direct in these matters, on that album the sad songs are sad, the bouncy songs bounce and so on. Look Sharp! is accused by some reviewers of containing a fair bit of filler but I disagree, I would say that perhaps the jauntiness around some of the songs disguises their true meaning and intent, and perhaps that does not sit so well with some reviewers’ ears.

Sometimes, as on Dance Away, darker emotions are brushed away by welding the lyric (a bitter yarn about waltzing away from a bad relationship) to a bouncy synth riff. Elsewhere, A View From A Hill might have been more satisfying were it not for the saxes and trumpets parping all over it. It has quite an arty lyric and maybe a lack of confidence in it led to an unusual arrangement to detract from this. It is perhaps the one out-and-out mis-step on Look Sharp!.

All over the record killer choruses abound and even if it mostly feels disposable and lightweight, it is a really fun fifty minutes. To conclude, I have to mention two crucial songs from this album. One you may already know, the single Listen To Your Heart was a hit all over Europe. It closes the album. The other song is Chances (which I think was released as a single in Sweden but not anywhere else), which opened the second side of my cassette version.

From killer choruses to deeper things

I think that the most memorable songs that I heard as a child were the ones that woke me up to the reality of an adult world that lies beyond childhood. I have touched upon this before with Red Box and these are another two such songs. We are not just talking about sex and love here as being things that you don’t know much about when you are kid but also other things. Like for instance who you would turn to if the people around you whom you loved were no longer there or how to take your own place in the world when that day comes and you have to do things for yourself.

Listening to it now, Chances is perhaps just a standard pop song that tells its story well by pushing certain buttons: “No hunk will usurp you / No monsters will hurt you / Do you any harm” (Five points for using “usurp” in your second language Mr Gessle!). The whole theme of romance being linked to protecting someone from dark forces has stayed with me ever since.

Meanwhile, Listen To Your Heart is a little more sophisticated and, in my view, belongs to the pantheon of great pop singles. I think even compatriots ABBA would have struggled to write something with this song’s noble call to consider all sides when making the difficult decision of whether to leave or stay (they were too busy divorcing each other). Like the best love songs though, it transcends being about love and could represent any difficult decision or time. That’s an important thing, whether you are nine, twenty nine or ninety nine.

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· Understated Classics, Roxette, Music, Pop, Eleven

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