The solo debut by Marit Larsen, formerly of well-regarded Norwegian teen pop duo M2M, is a marvelous surprise and a treat not only for fans of that group, but any lover of rootsy, melodic folk or just plain old pop/rock. Already a seven-year veteran of the music business when she recorded it at 22, Larsen turns in a remarkably assured set of inventive, original songs that draw equally from folk, pop, and country. Her distinctive writerly voice encompasses both a sprightly playfulness and a self-consciously mature anxiety, as reflected in her penchant for outsized, almost bombastically melodic choruses tempered by more tentative, delicate verses. After the brief, sweetly understated preamble of "In Came the Light," the title tune rushes in with a frenzied swirl of schmaltzy, Disney-esque strings and bells, but its romantic exuberance is swiftly undercut by a yearning verse melody and a narrator so enraptured and yet so wracked by jealous doubt that she can barely even stand her lover's presence. This sort of crippling insecurity crops up repeatedly -- in the self-effacing unrequited lover/loner of "Recent Illusion," and the snooping, paranoid housewife of "This Time Tomorrow," a jangly waltz whose awkward second-person perspective and forced, unconvincing premise make it the album's sole lyrical weak link. In each case, it's made achingly more poignant by Larsen's resonant delivery -- there's so much warmth and sweetness in her voice that even in her most forlorn moments you can practically hear a smile determined to break through the pathos.
Fortunately (for the listener's psyche as well as Larsen's) she seems to prevail in the struggle against uncertainty at least as often as not, most effervescently in "The Sinking Game," which dives headfirst into new love with sheer, death-defying candor -- boasting "I'm coming clean of jealousy and shame" against a backdrop giddily overstuffed with harmonica, banjo, trombone, spoons, and singing saw. Equally exultant is the dynamite first single "Don't Save Me," a jaunty folk-rocker which finds Larsen so tickled to be breaking free of a dud relationship that her audible smile becomes unmistakable, especially on the half-spoken, teen pop throwback bridge. (Its infectiousness is well-proven: it spent five weeks at the top of the Norwegian singles chart.) And the musical standouts continue: the charming country stomp of "Only a Fool" (complete with slide whistle), the inspirational piano ballad/self-reliance anthem "Solid Ground," and especially the wistful, blissful "Come Closer," whose bubbly mandolin riff is pure ear candy. Even on the few songs that fail to fully congeal, Larsen's knack for melody never lags, and her musicianship is always top-notch: in addition to penning all but three of the songs by herself, co-producing, arranging, and designing the album cover, she's credited with playing all of the many instruments on here except for drums, accordion, and strings. All told, it's a truly formidable showing, and easily one of the most beautiful, joyous, heartbreaking, and human albums in recent memory.