The UK may be delivering a seemingly endless assembly line of female soul singers but the rest of Europe’s dominating soul stars are predominately male, singing from a decidedly masculine point of view. Whether it’s Nyr in France, Tuomo in Finland, Stephen Simmonds in Sweden, Alain Clark in Holland, and here with Jarle Bernhoft in Norway, one consistently hears men who are unapologetic in their masculinity and lyrical maturity, drawing a striking contrast in both tone and carriage to the high-pitched, sexual-content heavy crooners dominating U.S. radio R&B today. More than striking, Bernhoft’s fourth solo project in four years is a welcome one.
Singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist Jarle Bernhoft aka Bernhoft has been representing the best of European soul as a solo artist since 2008’s critically acclaimed Ceramik City Chronicles, but it was last year’s Solidarity Breaks that helped break Bernhoft through to international stardom. His voice has the smooth and sturdy presence of a José James with the sensitive, belting wails of Marc Broussard. Tall, lean and bespoke suited, the bespectacled Bernhoft presents a dashing hipster figure in stature and voice. On his previous live set, 2010’s double-disc 1: Man 2: Band, Bernhoft separately brought his persuasive gifts as a solo one-man band and as the frontman for a full rock and soul band. Unfortunately the two recorded sets and 18 songs felt like overkill for an artist still developing his solo repertoire, and there was filler to spare. This time, backed by the 24-member Norwegian Radio Orchestra, KORK, Bernhoft is more judicious in his selections and relaxed in his delivery. The results are surer, subtler and sweet.
There is acid and meat here too, lyrically speaking. “Stay with Me” is an awkward, yet vulnerable confession that begins in pathos (“I was lost/I couldn’t lift my eyes from my shoes”) and ends with a plea and a promise (“Stay with me/oh, stay with me/ I am dying to set your heart on fire again”). There is complexity to his story telling, certainly with his biggest hit to-date, “C’mon,” a declarative Top 30 song of a regretful man trying to talk to his woman after the troubled relationship has passed its sell-by date ("Now you’ve got me feeling so sorry/ for something I didn’t do/You’ve got me crawling around a gutter/When I should have been busy making love to you"). Like Anthony David, Bernhoft also isn’t afraid to be open about male weakness and does so without diminishment, as with “Control” (“Have you ever/ever have to stand and just watch/while your life was like a game on your Xbox/welcome to the club/I’m the president”).
A poet with a love of intergalactic metaphors, Berhoft frequently describes man’s dark interiors, inner yearnings, and fantastical experiences in space travel terms, as with the revelatory “Space In My Heart” ("There is a space in my heart/an infinite casing of darkness/there is a space in my heart/waiting to be filled by her") and on the celestial seduction of “Buzz Aldrin” (“You’ll never have to touch the ground/by walking/User make us softer sound/space talking/Everything’ is upside down/it’s lasting/Let’s do what connecting encounter/was wandering (Buzz Aldrin)/Where did you go/Where did you go/ Where did you go”). These two songs, along with “Sunday” and “Stay with Me,” also represent some of this baritone’s finest vocal moments on a project absent a bad take.
Some critics have criticized Walk with Me for the lush orchestrations that KORK beautifully prepares as a bed for Bernhoft’s crisp delivery, saying the arrangements took the edge off the contemporary star’s modern fare. Having recently heard Alain Clark’s far too precious Live with the Metropole Orchestra and Sting’s completely washed-out Symphonicities, KORK deserves a standing ovation for making Bernhoft’s music sound richer, grander and as if it had always been meant for the symphony stage. Restrained, Bernhoft doesn’t go for a lot of the long notes or the sustained highs that he’s proven capable of reaching (check out a live YouTube clip of his “He Ain’t Heavy” (below) for an example of Bernhoft’s capacities), but he’s never swallowed by the surrounding music, a considerable feat when 24 instrumentalists are enveloping you in layers of sound. Despite lyrics that often claim the contrary, Bernhoft stands tall throughout, centerstage and solidly in control while expressing a world of lost, searching men in chaos, in love, in longing, in daydreams and always impressive. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson