Listening Booth: Kerli, “Love Is Dead”

Kerli – Love Is Dead (2008)
purchase this album (Amazon)

As I’ve often stated in my reviews on my home site, there are many times when the best things you discover via the Internet are the ones you discover by accident. So it is with the CD Love Is Dead by Estonian singer Kerli, which came out this past July.

Mindlessly surfing YouTube one day, checking out spoofs of Daniel Craig and Quantum of Solace (I’m a fan of neither), I happened upon a sampling for the videogame of the same name, which has the theme song “When Nobody Loves You” by Kerli. The song was electric, shockingly new and refreshing, while still containing all the great elements of a classic James Bond theme. Whatever reasoning exists as to why in the world the producers of QoS decided to go with the abhorrent theme by Alicia Keys and Jack White rather than choose this will elude me for the rest of my days…nevertheless, it spurred me on to find out more about this young woman (she’ll be just 22 years old, come February ’09) and her music.

Kerli Koiv hails from the small Northern European country, with a population just over one million, and depending on whether you believe either Wikipedia or her “official” bio on Island Def Jam’s site, she either didn’t or did win the Eurolaul contest in 2004. While other news sources such as esctoday.com report she was the runner-up to the group Neiokoso, regardless, her considerable talent caught the attention of IDJ scouts and she was signed to the label. Love Is Dead has only tracked a peak position of #126 on the Billboard Top 200 (#2 on the BB heatseekers chart), moved just a bit over 5,000 copies of real CDs in record stores at that point, and its MP3 sales were given a handsome boost by an initial release as iTunes made her “Walking on Air” the free single of the week when the album debuted.

Love Is Dead track listing:

1. Love is Dead

2. Walking on Air

3. The Creationist

4. I Want Nothing

5. Up Up Up

6. Bulletproof

7. Beautiful Day

8. Creepshow

9. Hurt Me

10.Butterfly Cry

11.Strange Boy

12.Fragile

Anyone who really knows me is aware that I don’t buy a whole lot of modern music. Having lived through the ’70s and ’80s (and laugh if you will at this part), I know the best years of the music industry are pretty much over and done. Even my younger brother, who used to live and breathe hip-hop, has come to realize that music back in the last decade and years past, told stories. Singers such as Bowie, Prince, even Madonna–took the listener on an audio journey, and told tales of love, loss and passion from the beginning to the end of their songs. A lot of music today isn’t organic; it’s constructed by media trackers, programmers and executives who know nothing about what true music is, in order to fill the clubs and snag dollars out of wallets as quickly as possible. Sadly, the Onion video about the dangers of Miley Cyrus overuse isn’t really a joke when you think about it; it’s more prescient than most realize. Honestly, outside of the wonder that is Ayumi Hamasaki, I haven’t been excited about a new artist in a number of years.

Kerli’s music changed that…at least, as far as her music goes.

Although her Island bio states that Kerli observes no true musical influences (impossible for any artist…even Prince rightfully acknowledges Hendrix), her style contains traces of reggae, hip-hop, standard club, rock and balladry to comprise a powerful style of alternative music. Her music is full of lush strings, guitar, piano and heavy drums. Yes, her songs can easily be clumped into the limiting square peg of top 40 if radio stations demand it…but it shouldn’t be. Kerli’s music should be played on a variety of stations, as true music deserves to be heard by the masses and not confined to any niche group. Her music is at once passionately open, personal and poignant, as music by the best artists (i.e. U2 or Bowie) tends to be. When Richie Sambora’s album Stranger in This Town came out in 1991, it contained listening instructions: Turn down the lights, light a candle…welcome… These lines could just as easily be attributed to Love Is Dead:

The opening (and title) track is the most obviously “influenced” song, the style owing much to the music of Pat Benatar, although on this track–as throughout the disc–Kerli’s vocals are so distinctive and unique that she does stand out as her own person. This song is an anthem for any woman who’s ever been betrayed by someone they love. Track 2, “Walking on Air,” coincidentally also the first of her videos I have ever viewed, alternates between being a Goth standard and emotionally uplifting track. It’s one of the most directly autobiographical songs on the disc, and is a true pleasure throughout. Track 3, “The Creationist,” is one of the more acceptable top 40 sounding themes, due to its catchy nature. The crispness of this track tends to help showcase Kerli’s voice better than some other ones.

Track 4, “I Want Nothing,” is a bit repetitive in its lyrics, but the driving force behind it is Kerli’s dark, angered vocals, which lift the tune above the mediocrity a lesser singer might have mired it in. Track 5, Up Up Up, is the most reggae-like tune, a true dancehall jam meant for close swaying. Track 6, “Bulletproof,” deals with the attempt to love in the face of past betrayal, and is a rock ballad of the truest, most faithful order. Although the various musicians perform with great accomplishment on the album, the guitar on this track is especially great. Track 7, “Beautiful Day,” much like “Creationist,” has a subtlety to its mixing which helps to highlight Kerli’s vocal talent.

Track 8, “Creepshow,” is probably the most Goth-intended track on the disc, although the lyrics are far less “horrifying” than its title suggests. It’s a darker song which seeps into the mind, and even if you’re a guy, you won’t be embarrassed to sing along with the “la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la” intro to the song. Track 9, “Hurt Me,” is a song about abuse, and debate rages within the fan community–dubbed by Kerli her “Moon Children”–as to whether the song is about an ex-boyfriend or her family. Regardless, in spite of its lyrics, the song is oddly sexy…in a dark way. Track 10, “Butterfly Cry,” is an ode to moving past pain in order to find the best within yourself. It’s one of the few slower tracks on the disc, and if this isn’t snatched up for a movie trailer soon, I’ll be amazed. Track 11, “Strange Boy,” is an absolute 100% club track which will more than likely be remixed to death by DJs coast-to-coast. Its pulsating beat catches a little bit of everything from Depeche Mode to Soft Cell to Bronski Beat. It’s an absolute club classic in the making.

“Fragile,” the disc’s final track, is a wonderfully beautiful ballad and a bittersweet ending to the album overall. One of the best things about Kerli’s lyrics and singing style is that there are few instances where it seems like she’s “just” singing; overall, the cohesiveness of the album’s style makes it sound as if she is “personally” “singing to” the listener…and there is a definitive difference between the two. Because of this style and approach, “Fragile” is a song which could be interpreted in many ways: she could be singing about her fans, the press and paparazzi, or people who have hurt her in the past. No matter who she is singing about, she is in the end singing to “you.”..and that is one of the crucial differences between an artist and a product.

If there are any true issues I have with Love Is Dead, they are: A) the credits–who performed which instrument, who Kerli gives thanks to, etc–are printed in teeny-weeny Eyestrain-O-Vision. I swear, I feared I was going to go blind trying to read the sheet. While Kerli is undeniably beautiful to look at, and I acknowledge it’s necessary to show her off for the debut disc, I hope that in future releases, there’ll be less artwork (the liner sleeve folds out into a poster of her creepy doll trademark) and larger typeface. B) No lyrics are included with the disc. Yes, the Internet has allowed for lyrics to be looked up easily at a whim, but in my opinion, at least for an initial debut, a lyrics sheet should be a must for “any” artist hoping to gain a following.

While the lyrics (written by Kerli and various others) tend to be repetitive in some of her songs, something tells me this is more a fault of Island Def Jam’s producers rather than Kerli. Her powerful and enticing vocals tend to overshadow this, and make each song compelling in its own right. Future releases will hopefully open up the writing a bit more. Overall though, Love Is Dead is definitely a winner–and comes alive due to the talent evident in a young woman “from a land called secret Estonia.” Apparently, nobody knows where it’s at…

…but I do, because I googled it, damn it.

The best things–and artists–are always discovered by accident.