The Ark

Prayer for the Weekend

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The Ark created one of the finest pop albums of 2004, 2005, or 2006 -- depending on where you live and how closely you follow glitzy, chart-topping Scandinavian dance-rock -- with their tremendous third album, State of the Ark. Its follow-up was released in the midst of a frenzied 2007 that found the band storming Sweden's Melodifestivalen competition, representing their country in the 52nd Eurovision Song Contest, scoring their first actual number one single (though Prayer for the Weekend was their fourth straight number one album) -- all with the singsongy schaffel-schlager "The Worrying Kind" -- and touring all over the continent, while flamboyant, palindromic frontman Ola Salo also found time to premiere his symphonic poem "Linnaeus Rex," written in honor of the Swedish taxonomist's tricentennial. Musically, Prayer retreats somewhat from its predecessor's streamlined synthesizer pop, retaining its focus on danceable grooves and some of its electronic shimmer but generally favoring the glam rock theatrics and bombastic orchestral and choral arrangements of the first two Ark albums. The resulting collection is pleasingly varied, if undeniably grandiose -- probably the band's most diverse -- but potentially liable to put off listeners who were won over by State's emotional directness and blissful pop efficiency. It's not that Salo has suddenly become disingenuous; more that the over-the-top arrangements here tend to highlight his campy theatricality at the expense of his earnestness, particularly in light of the comparatively sparse State, while his increasingly ambiguous (if frequently evocative) lyrics don't make things any more reassuring. Or it could just be that the songwriting is less consistently compelling. Nothing particularly drags -- even an obvious throwaway like "All I Want Is You" gets decent mileage from its "Crocodile Rock" piano and Salo's seeming inability to write an ineffectual hook -- but most of the album feels too much like business as usual for the band, with should-be-sensational singles like "Absolutely No Decorum" and the darkly dancy, "Like a Prayer"-evincing title track sounding naggingly reminiscent of their past glories. Still, workaday Ark is nevertheless something special, be it glimmer-disco like "I Pathologize," straight-ahead rock like "New Pollution" (no relation to the Beck hit, but nearly as incoherent), or gaudily operatic glam like "Death to the Martyrs," (which features the rousing refrain "you sorry ass.") They're slightly more successful when they tweak their formula somewhat, as on the twitchy, late-Bowie-esque "Little Dysfunk You" (including the lyrical challenge: "always quoting Morrissey/but did you ever do it with a boy?") and the hymn-like, handclap singalong "Gimme Love to Give." As usual, they conclude in noteworthy fashion, in this case with "Uriel," a spare, Leonard Cohen-ish folk ballad with cryptic lyrics (about a mermaid? a drowned woman?), written when Salo was only 16, that sounds almost nothing like the rest of the album.

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