It sounds strange to say, since love has only been the subject of roughly 95 percent of the songs in recorded history, but “Woman,” the recent debut LP from the enigmatic Los Angeles duo Rhye, who come to Royale on Tuesday, has captured the romantic imaginations of listeners in a way that seems utterly new. Contemporary love songs tend to focus on the pain of break-ups, unrequited love, or overt expressions of lust, but the 10 songs here seem broadcast directly from the throes of authentic, infectious romance.
This sense of romance is so palpable for good reason, Robin Hannibal, (one half of Rhye with Mike Milosh) explains on the phone from Los Angeles. Each was in love with a woman from California and in the midst of moving there from Europe while they were writing. The sense of longing from afar, and the euphoria of reunion were familiar emotions in their lives.
“I definitely think that in these days there is this tendency to focus on sex, and not sensuality, and to focus on the controversy of that theme,” Hannibal says of the musical zeitgeist. “There’s also a really sad tendency to show misogynistic elements. That’s definitely something that we are trying to distance ourselves from, to show and portray how beautiful love is, and how pure that emotion can be, and how inspiring that can be when you’re creating.”
There’s a tendency, particularly among male musicians, to boast of love as a series of conquests rather than something genuine and sincere, he says.
A big part of the band’s early, amorous reception online came about through another sort of inversion of gender roles, with listeners assuming Milosh, whose voice and delivery has been repeatedly compared to Sade, was a woman. The comparison is apt, but the two’s complexly layered, but tastefully and minimally structured orchestral arrangements expand the musical reference points exponentially. One overlooked description — jazzy, smoky, gossamer and so on tend to be used a lot — is the pop nature of many of the songs on “Woman.” “The Fall,” the group’s breakout single, glides along on a piano riff that seems drawn from ABBA.
“That’s very interesting, that’s a huge compliment,” Hannibal says. “I think with references, we’re not trying to disregard anything, say it sounds like this or doesn’t sound like that. To us, whatever people get out of the music is beautiful, and that’s what we’ve been trying to play on all the way. We’re not trying to put too many images into the listener’s mind.”
That was easy to do, since throughout the early months last year when “The Fall” appeared online, there was no information available about who made it. The band still abjures photographs. It’s not that they didn’t want to be associated with the project, Hannibal says, “it’s more that in this day and age everything is so much about brand and visual identity. You can decode or decipher what a person is wearing and how they’re acting and you know what the music is like. There’s nothing left up to fantasy and imagination for the listener. That’s something that we were talking about a lot and decided on very early, that we didn’t want to be all over this, wear the right clothes, have the right dance moves, the cool haircut or whatever. We wanted people to experience it just for the music, and create their own experience of what this is.”
Without confining visual cues, you can make the music sound like anything, he says. “You hear ABBA, others hear Sade, others Hall and Oates, others French-inspired music from the ’70s, some people hear urban, some hear pop music. I think it’s much more diverse that way than if we were all over this with the way that we look.”
Eventually, of course, not having a brand became their brand, which only added to the allure. Much like in romance itself, sometimes a little mystery is all it takes to turn interest to infatuation.
One area where the group did invest heavily in imagery was in the videos for “Open” and “The Fall,” two gorgeously cinematic interpretations of the songs that played a big role in both confounding, and elevating their aesthetic. Both videos were directed by Daniel Kragh-Jacobsen, a film student in Los Angeles, and a friend of Hannibal’s from their time in Copenhagen. Unlike the songs, which seem steady in the full blush of love, the videos portrayed a less idealized interpretation. The videos, which feature appearances from some of the same characters, show the many-faceted angles of coupledom.
“For me, what’s interesting to watch, is normally not something idyllic,” Kragh-Jacobsen says. “We would rather look at someone on the street fighting than caressing and being sensitive to each other.”
In “Open” a young woman seems reluctant to give herself over completely to a lover, but she stumbles across, what she thinks, is an older couple for whom everything seems perfect. The viewer knows from watching that couple’s story in “The Fall” that all is not what it seems. “I wanted to have everybody watching the videos be, ‘We know the family’s relationships is not idyllic.’ What changes her [feelings about her own relationship] is actually something that’s a lie.”
In “The Fall” it’s not even clear whether the older married main character, who experiences a sense of wanderlust at a party, is actually engaged in an affair, or simply inserting himself into a revel of lost youth. The ambiguity was central to both Kragh-Jacobsen and Hannibal’s vision. “That’s something we thought was missing a lot in modern day music videos,” Hannibal says. “We wanted a story, an actual story, that had substance and content.”
While he agrees that the videos do inject a sadness into the songs, he sees beauty in that as well. “I think it’s a beautiful kind of sadness. There’s still some kind of belief in love. But love isn’t all that easy, peachy, and rosy. It can be tough, and there’s agony and there’s ecstasy. Love is such a strong emotion and it has so many things in it.”
The flip side of love is, of course, the pain that comes from its absence. “But sadness is a result of loving somebody so much,” Hannibal says. Rhye’s music reminds us, if it’s been a while, exactly what that feels like.