What's next for an artist after they propel their sometimes recklessly experimental début album to the top of a national chart? Back in 2008, Franco-Finnish art-pop duo The Dø achieved exactly that when their deeply flawed, but occasionally inspired, first album A Mouthful became the first English-language record by a French act to hit #1 in France. While Helsinki-born singer Olivia Merilahti and Paris multi-instrumentalist Dan Levy could so easily have sought to repeat their success with more of the same, they made the braver choice. Still as hooked on new and exciting sounds as before but also full of determination to make the best possible music, The Dø have spectacularly surpassed themselves with Both Ways Open Jaws – indeed, they have produced one of the most inventive, accomplished and engaging albums of the year.
It is a rare pleasure to see musicians take a quantum leap forwards in their capabilities, and rarer still to hear them make so big a jump as this: while A Mouthful squandered a solid build-up with a drab and miserable second side, Both Ways Open Jaws impresses with almost alarming consistency from front to back. That this is so even as The Dø veer from one experiment to another makes the achievement all the more impressive. If this dazzling second album takes a few listens to filter through, it is due in no small part to the the duo's incredible mobility in mood and style. Yet from funky pop to tender ballads by way of leftfield electro, Merilahti and Levy always remain foot-to-the-floor, eyes-open, wide-awake brilliant. There is simply no reason not to get swept up in this terrific set of songs.
Having thought carefully about pacing, The Dø begin proceedings on a subtle note. Built largely from a yearning vocal and a synthesizer 'Dust It Off' is a relatively minimalist introduction to the band's brave new sound world. Before long, however, the duo are bringing out their big guns, perhaps foremost amongst which is the deliriously entertaining single 'Too Insistent'. The deployment of a wonderfully understated Merilahti vocal (“what's so special about me," she protests, “I'm ordinary”) backed up with strings, backing vocals and horns results in what is simply one of the finest pop products for some time. Completing a devastating one-two salvo, 'Bohemian Dances' benefits from both a phenomenal sense of rhythm and the Dø's great leap forward in terms of lyrics. Rescuing dancing from the vault of hackneyed old pop topics, Merilahti reassures a lover that as long as they keep moving "the answers are no longer far."
While the visceral conflict of 'Gonna Be Sick!' and the elegant whimsy of 'The Calender' further demonstrate The Dø's mastery of their brand of art-pop, other songs are less direct but every bit as accomplished. A single it may have been but 'Slippery Slope' is no straightforward chart missile – even on an album packed with superb drums and percussion its almost total focus on them is wonderfully executed and forms the ideal backdrop for a lyric about a world and a mind out of joint. 'The Wicked & The Blind' beguiles for a full five minutes with its syncopated groove and a set of lines seemingly sung from the perspective of an impoverished dictatorship trying to teach gratitude to its forcibly relocated citizens. Later, 'B.W.O.J.' sandwiches a mammoth, headbanging synth figure between a minimalist buildup and a dissociated finale of severed murmurings. So fantastic is this sudden pindrop moment that it all but erases the memory of 'Leo Leo', the lullaby which is a slight downer in the middle of the album.
Every inch a match for fellow Scandinavian songstresses Lykke Li and Robyn, Merilahti's irresistible personality is very often the element which drives these songs from greatness to near-perfection. But in Dan Levy the singer has a dexterous and inexhaustibly inventive collaborator whose multi-instrumentalism and ability to augment rather than overwhelm songs are crucial to the sound of Both Ways Open Jaws. The duo have admitted that at the time of A Mouthful, The Dø was essentially a side project to the work they pursued in film scoring. But with three years of touring under their belt, things have changed - this album is every inch the sound of two enormous talents focused absolutely on creating the best pop music they can. Where The Dø go next we can only dream, but in the meantime Both Ways Open Jaws is something almost peerless in the 2011 canon, and an essential listen for lovers of music everywhere.