Rona Diaries (Young Aspiring Professionals)
It’s not entirely our fault if we missed this new album from Fredrik Saroea, erstwhile public face of Norway’s Datarock.
It’s a solo album under a name that’s not exactly household; it’s been a few years since Datarock released a record, and that one, Face The Brutality, was nine years after its predecessor; and as he and I discussed in 2018, the band’s reputation for making you smirk as much as dance helps sell, but can carry downsides whenever something serious is being discussed.
Just as importantly, this is in many ways a counterintuitive record: often small-scale and sparse; diverse; sometimes but not always serious; and carrying a title that could simultaneously appeal (ooh, intimate; or, cool! Time for a laugh) and repel (Christ, not another how I survived lockdown message; or, seriously? Do I really want someone taking the piss out of this?).
However, it would be entirely our fault if we let some of those excuses prevent us from giving this record attention and enjoyment, because it is small, maybe even slight, but still really rather good.
One way to think of Rona Diaries is that the diary component isn’t actually about the past year and a half of social/financial/artistic/political devastation but rather about the young Saroea as a music fan. The kind of music fan a few of us knew, or maybe were: articulate and inquisitive but somewhat socially clumsy, mocked for oddities yet suspecting (wishing?) he is actually cleverer than average, angry and agitated but alive to absurdities. And clearly listening to a lot – a lot – of British bands.
I say this because listening to this record is like flicking through the record collection of that teenager, beginning - as surely it must - with Morrisey and Marr in the album’s opening tracks.
The End,Battered & Bruised and The Family You Got To Choose - the first in echoey voice-with-guitar mode that touches on Marr’s impromptu Walk Away Renee with Billy Bragg; the second more fleshed out with bass and strings and the knowingly referential line “how can someone so old say words so cold”; the third with a spry guitar riff that might recall Cemetery Gates - find Saroea just wan enough to feel separate but not wholly desperate.
That’s even he sings “I would like to take a walk inside your skull/Smash everything around me/Break you like you broke me” or ponders the misunderstood, because “You’re not alone … We’re the friends you never ever lose/We’re the family that you got to choose”.
Each song has a strain of melancholy within shells of subtle prettiness, each feels perfect for a bedsit wallow but also a quiet dance in the shadows, and each feels like it’s actually secretly fun to tap into that not quite lost part of ourselves.
From here on, Saroea plays more widely with indie tropes, and with seriousness, as capable of highland pop à la Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame in I’m A Rock as he is of mournful Manchester loss in, actually, I’m A Rock, and then ending the album with a men’s chorus wryly serenading the final beer of the night with a song whose title is about as Smiths as you can get: Heaven Knows Those Songs Weren’t Heaven Sent.
The coolly delivered white boy funk of Zip-A-Dee-Do, lyrically and musically a cousin to early ‘80s Glasgow and late ‘90s The Divine Comedy, tells us first of all that “The sun isn’t on its way today/Tomorrow/That’s the truth and its actual/the world is not satisfactual”, while pleading, in a reversal of Sting and Dire Straits, “I want my LSD”.
Locked down or just hungry for lysergics it’s hard to argue with either point, just as it is in this song’s murkier cousin, Dragging You Down, where Saroea’s bogeyman (“He’ll rip you up if you put on a pound/And he ain’t gonna stop if you try to make sound”) still comes dressed in dance shoes.
The post-punk gets agitated in Bulletproof First, guitar chasing the drums while Saroea works himself up into a yelp by the chorus, before returning to its droll funkiness in My Borough (the mix of offhand wit and slightly sleazy sexiness more than a nod to Datarock) and Stray Cats (the sound a homecoming for the echoey voice/guitar sound of The End) which somehow manages to be both wistful and hopeful.
There are a dozen tracks here, not one of them making three minutes and two of them not even hitting two minutes, so this bedsit playlist is over before you even notice. But not before you notice you’ve had a laugh as well as a hum-along.
And in typical fashion, Saroea is both serious and sardonic on the way out, telling us “Depressive songs/Passive-aggressive songs/Some kind of cathartic masochism/What a terrible argument/Heaven knows those songs weren’t heaven sent.”