The Norwegian DJ and producer Terje Olsen has a thing for puns and groan-inducing jokes—there’s the name he produces and records under, Todd Terje, a nod to the disco/house DJ Todd Terry, and song titles like “Italian Stallion” and “Inspector Norse,” a reference to the BBC detective series Inspector Morse. (“Inspector Norse” also appeared in a short Norwegian film with the punny title “Whateverest.”) In the world of dance music, where obscurity and mystification are the norm, Terje’s goofy accessibility is a welcome exception.
With the release of his first full album, though, Terje’s sense of humor feels preemptively defensive—any criticism of It’s Album Time, released earlier this month on Olsen Records, can be dismissed as just not getting it, or taking something called It’s Album Time too seriously. It’s a smart instinct, if not necessarily an appealing one, because It’s Album Time feels haphazard in a way that Terje’s recent EPs and singles haven’t. There’s a lot of good stuff on the new album, but most of the best songs have already been released. The most notable new track, a collaboration with Bryan Ferry, is an intrusion into an otherwise blissful wave of MOR-inflected and Giorgio Moroder– and John Carpenter–inspired movie-soundtrack disco.
Terje has been active for more than a decade, initially as (primarily) a remixer, but critics and fans have responded as he’s refined his own electronic disco and house productions during the 2010s. Two versions of “Snooze 4 Love,” from the 2011 EP Ragysh, got wider distribution that year as part of the Future Balearica Vol. 2 anthology; in 2012, “Inspector Norse” became a minor crossover hit. (One writer called it a “bubbly, interstellar roller-skate jam of the highest order.”) Terje’s slick, bright Scandinavian sound and pulsing mid-tempo beats are exactly the kind of dance music that appeals to both clubbers and people who don’t listen to a lot of dance music—it’s house music designed as much for headphones as for the dance floor.
The payoff for Terje’s recent success came in big-time writing and production credits for Robbie Williams and Franz Ferdinand. But it feels like those obligations took up too much of Terje’s energy and time last year. The best track on It’s Album Time is the closer, a version of “Inspector Norse” that’s identical to the one on 2012’s It’s the Arps EP except for 20 additional seconds of sampled crowd noise at the end. Two of the other three tracks from It’s the Arps—”Swing Star Part I” and “Swing Star Part II”—also show up here, as does a new edit of “Strandbar,” a single from 2013. All excellent, but also all kind of redundant.
There are other standouts on It’s Album Time—the Moroder/Neu! homages “Delorean Dynamite” and “Oh Joy” and the funky exotica of “Alfonso Muskedunder”—but even they sound one-dimensional next to the previously released hits. And the three new tracks that lead off the album feel like loungy gags, hitting the swinging ’60s jazz tones on the nose. Along with Bendik Kaltenborn’s cover illustration, the first 12 minutes serve as a not-so-gentle nudge in the ribs; the rest of the album strains to overcome that start and re-establish Terje’s goodwill.
And then there’s “Johnny and Mary,” a cover of Robert Palmer’s influential minor synth-pop hit from 1980. Terje slows the song and strips down the arrangement, and Ferry sings in a hushed voice that just makes him seem old. It’s too good a song to be a total dud, but it’s a lethargic drag right in the middle of the album; it would have been better as a stand-alone single or part of an EP. Then again, it’s the kind of high-profile nerd-bait collaboration that gets people talking.
And ultimately It’s Album Time seems like an advertisement for Terje. Even in 2014, when most of the ways we used to think about and listen to music have broken down and Spotify streams all the free music most people will ever want, the album—a collection of eight to 12 loosely related songs packaged together—is still the way many listeners conceptually organize music. It’s Album Time collects some of Terje’s best recent material and presents it to a wider audience than his dance-oriented EPs and singles would ever reach. Think of the title as Terje’s acknowledgment of the cynicism of music publicity and promotion—It’s Album Time is the next step for his career, and now that that’s out of the way, he can get back to making great music.