Teenpop’s Pink-Avril-Ashlee era was foreshadowed back in 1999, when two 15-year-old Norwegian girls sang, “Don’t say you love me, you don’t even know me” on the first Pokémon movie soundtrack. The duo, M2M, broke up a couple of years later, leaving a legacy of genuine young-woman concerns: the difference between who you are and how you appear, basically.
Marit Larsen was the self-effacing one—her voice matter-of-fact where Marion Raven’s was emotive, she often seemed willing to just stay back and harmonize. Now, with the same straightforward voice, Marit’s come up with something utterly ebullient: pop carnival cabaret without preciousness, singer-songwriter self-analysis without bullshit or obfuscation. In “Don’t Save Me,” the first single, the words seem to be about ditching a relationship, but the mood isn’t I’ll Break You but rather I’ll Wash You Right Out of My Hair: “Don’t turn the truth around/It reads the same way upside down,” she sings, amused by her own wordplay, delighted by her intonation.
The title song, “Under the Surface,” is like a sweet 1950s movie soundtrack, as if she were strolling in the meadow, or going shopping with her friends, or riding the merry-go-round. Meanwhile, as the music gurgles playfully, she’s slowly dissecting her insecurities. She’s in love, happy, unexpectedly so, but “Suddenly I’m back at the core/Thinking of her who had you before.” Maybe this is perceptiveness and maybe it’s self-sabotage —the song hasn’t decided. Marit can be as fraught as any teenpop or singer-songwriter angst kid; in “This Time Tomorrow,” the insecurity erupts into emotional self-destruction. But the music—the melody and arrangement, but even more than that, something in her voice, beyond its slyness and knowingness—adds perspective, as if she’s got an extra eye watching her uncertainties and entanglements with loving joy.