In “Payphone,” a mid-tempo matrix of fast harmonies and heartaches on The Big Room, the second album by the Norwegian duo M2M, a young girl walks around in ominous weather, although she never mentions rain or snow or anything like that outright. “Just cry,” she begins, her everyday soprano edged by sweet forbearance as hypnotically as it is frustrated by teenage impatience. “Rely on me.” Turns out, in a chorus that goes rockier and more vocal-backgroundy at the same time the verse’s unforgiving two-note piano riff never ceases to sound, she’s quoting an absent guy. Who might be a liar. But this, at any rate, is when a great swirl about the primacy of the human voice and romantic analysis and telecommunications erupts in the girl’s mind, not to mention in the middle of her absolutely spot-on singing. Cresting, on a phrase inspired either by a lack of coinage or a dead cellphone battery, she sings, “I really need to find a payphone.” Afterward, she quotes the guy further (“Just smile”), again repeating her basic structure. This is a pop masterpiece.
Since they debuted in 2000 with the frequently genius Shades of Purple, M2M—Marion Raven and Marit Larsen, who are 17 and 18 years old respectively—have been teenpop’s deepest artists. Or they might just be two uncanny singers and songwriters who happen to be under 20. Given how much ornery old teenpop (a marketing umbrella under which fall upsettingly young singers and often distressingly Scandinavian-Anglo productions) has long eaten into the happiness of rock fans and commentators, it’s understandable that The Big Room seeks to reposition M2M toward the real. (The album is named for the main tracking space at that green icon of upstate bucolicity, Woodstock’s Bearsville.) In other words, a live band now back the duo. Kenny Aronoff, for example, the great ’80s drummer whose work ’90s rockers often find too heavy on precision and therefore too light on atmosphere, is in; the London programmers from Shades of Purple are out.
Initially, an M2M listener may notice this; fans of the modern perfection of London programmers may at first wonder why M2M chose to jump into a live-band racket keen on guitars, which after all are notoriously hard to keep in tune therefore sonically sloppy in a way seemingly counter to M2M’s music, no matter how much they like Lenny Kravitz’s sheepskin coats. But in fact the album only proves what people who enjoy various pop music grasp: that style, although its quality in the event can’t be overestimated, is a delusion anyway, that the real thing that makes pop music go is artists who are there. And make no mistake: Produced by Jimmy Bralower—who with Peter Zizzo brought home “Don’t Say You Love Me,” Raven and Larsen’s first hit—M2M on The Big Room are there.
On a couple of songs, the big-rockland “Jennifer” and “Miss Popular,” which coolly weaves in a chamber-pop piano bridge, M2M return to the topic of resentment. It was that angle on teenage life and love that made their debut’s “Girl in Your Dreams” into the kind of recording that reminds you how youthfully oriented pop can access the same emotions that rendered the psychological wranglings of mad old kings in Elizabethan drama and beautiful princesses in 19th-century Italian opera world famous. Leaning into wily guitar chords, Raven lays into stipulations like “It’s either her or me,” confessions such as “I will never be like Jennifer.” In “Miss Popular” she wonders, “Oh can’t she see?/What she’s putting innocent people through?” before gleefully turning the tables and revealing, “Oh Miss Popular/Everyone hates you.” How was it that Bryan Ferry credited the Ronettes records that stirred him years ago? Jukebox art? M2M make something like that.