“I never thought I could work this way,” says Sondre Lerche. “I never thought I could feel so free, so uninhibited. To be honest, I never thought I could make this album.”

Turns out there’s much to be surprised about when it comes to Avatars of Love, Lerche’s first new collection since moving back to his native Norway. For starters, it’s a double album, one that defies the conventional wisdom of the streaming era with a series of sprawling, epic tracks that routinely stretch past the five, six, even ten-minute mark. What’s more, the record is perhaps the most revealing work of self-reflection Lerche’s ever dared to create, offering up a candid reckoning with loss, desire, and infatuation as he looks back on a lifetime of relationships (some more raw and recent than others). While all that might suggest Avatars to be the grueling confessions of some tortured soul laboring away in perpetual solitude, the truth is, in fact, quite the opposite. The songs here often took shape in just hours, with lyrics and melodies pouring out in surreal bursts of inspiration, and Lerche captured it all with a similarly freewheeling spontaneity, heading straight into the studio to cut playful, transcendent performances with a rotating cast of his dearest friends and most trusted collaborators. The result is a stunningly beautiful and unabashedly romantic collection that walks the line between folk intimacy, electronic experimentalism, and orchestral grandeur, an open, honest exploration of sexuality and sentimentality that hints at everything from legends like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell to contemporaries like Ezra Koenig and Sufjan Stevens as it embraces the highs and lows of modern love in all its messy glory.

“This is without a doubt the biggest, boldest, most complex thing I’ve ever done,” Lerche reflects. “At the same time, it was also the easiest, most natural, and most liberating. As an artist, it’s the kind of flow you always dream about.”

Lerche’s been a dreamer for most of his life now. Born and raised in Bergen, Norway, he first came to international attention as a teenager with the release of his critically acclaimed debut, Faces Down, which Rolling Stone hailed as “one of the year’s loveliest, sunniest, poppiest albums.” Over the course of the ensuing two decades (most of which were spent living in the US), Lerche would go on to release eight more similarly celebrated studio albums, perform on Letterman, Conan, and at NPR’s Tiny Desk, score multiple feature films including Dan In Real Life and The Sleepwalker, collaborate in the studio and onstage with artists as diverse as Regina Spektor and Phillip Glass, and tour with the likes of Stereolab, Elvis Costello and St. Vincent, among others. The New Yorker dubbed him a “pop wunderkind,” while The New York Times praised his “elegantly shaped songs,” and NPR lauded his “slyly charismatic presence.” Outside of his prolific musical output and relentless tour schedule, Lerche somehow still managed to find time to explore a host of other interests, as well, releasing two children’s books, launching his own wildly popular line of natural wines, and publishing a collection of musical essays about everyone from A-ha to Lana Del Rey.

“These past few years, I made a conscious decision that I didn’t want to hold myself back in any way,” Lerche explains. “I decided that I just wanted to trust my instincts and see how far I could follow my ideas into reality.”

Lerche’s instincts served him well in March of 2020, when he made a split second decision to return to Norway just as the COVID-19 pandemic began cancelling flights and shuttering international borders. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he made it out just under the wire, a move that would not only open up whole new artistic horizons, but also reconnect him with his homeland in a deeper way than he’d anticipated.

“I think this whole experience has given me a greater appreciation of where I’m from and the sense of community and connection that comes with it,” Lerche says. “And of course being closer to my family and so many of my lifelong friends came with its own set of rewards, as well.”

By the time Lerche touched down in Norway, the wheels were already in motion to release an album he’d spent seven years crafting, a collection he considered to be the culmination of everything he’d been working towards for his entire career. Aptly titled Patience, the record would land right in the heart of the pandemic, and, with touring completely off the table, Lerche would have to scrap his entire release plan and quickly pivot to putting on a series of ambitious streaming productions shot in various locations around the country instead. As if the professional rollercoaster he was on wasn’t enough, Lerche would also simultaneously find himself in the midst of the most tumultuous stretch of his personal life he’d ever experienced, navigating his way through lingering heartbreak, complicated new love, and the challenges of being single for the first time in his adult life.

“I wound up in this unusually erratic, hyperactive mode,” he explains. “I was switching gears constantly and diving headfirst into any experience that felt new, which naturally led to a lot of excitement and quite a bit of turbulence.”

Along with all those new experiences came a creative whirlwind unlike anything Lerche had ever experienced. A series of intense, vivid songs about love and rejection and desire and regret began pouring out of him in a process that at times felt entirely beyond his control. The tunes were deeply personal, often fueled by long, vivid streams of lyrics that eschewed the traditional rules of popcraft in favor of something more idiosyncratic and unpredictable. As the summer of 2020 arrived and Norway began opening back up thanks to its swift initial response to the COVID crisis, Lerche took to the road for what was perhaps the first safe, socially distanced tour anywhere in the world. To keep his exposure limited, he traveled solo without any band or crew, which left him with plenty of time to mine the new creative vein he’d tapped into.

“After I played a gig, I’d go swim in the ocean in the dark and then just sit there by myself with my guitar and write,” he explains. “I felt this sense of clarity I’d never achieved before, an ability to articulate my feelings and emotions with a newfound precision that felt so joyful and freeing.”

Rather than let the songs pile up, Lerche began recording each track as soon as he finished writing it, working with a variety of musicians and producers back in Bergen along with a slew of international collaborators via the internet. Every time he thought he was done writing, a new song would present itself, and the entire process would start over.

“There were about four different studios with totally different setups that I liked to work in,” explains Lerche, “and my relationships with each of those producers was so strong because we were all such close friends and they knew what I was going through. I’d just call one up and say, ‘Can you hold the weekend for me? I feel another song coming on.’ And then I’d go in and sometimes we’d end up with everything recorded and mixed in a single night.”

That sense of total surrender to the song is obvious on Avatars of Love, which opens with the baroque chamber pop of “Guarantee That I’d Be Loved.” Mixing gently fingerpicked guitar and lush strings arranged by longtime friend and collaborator Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas, the track unfolds over six-and-a-half magical minutes, ebbing and flowing like waves on the shoreline as it vacillates between hope and heartbreak, commitment and insecurity, confidence and doubt. As with much of the album, Lerche’s voice is front and center in the mix, delivered with a pure, crystalline tone that suggests both the tender naivety of youth and the hard earned wisdom of adulthood all at once. The sleek, cinematic “Cut,” for instance, is a sultry slice of neo-noir pop that tips its cap to Bryan Ferry and David Bowie as it works to understand the ways in which relationships can leave us feeling simultaneously trapped and liberated. “We make no sense / We make such a mess,” Lerche sings. “We get so drunk with powerlessness / And so hooked on offering everyone else the very same escape we deny ourselves.” The hushed “Dead Of The Night,” meanwhile, broadens its scope to consider the ways in which even our most personal, intimate experiences can bind us in our shared humanity. Other tracks, like the aching “Turns Out I’m Sentimental After All,” find Lerche revisiting themes from his younger days (see 2014’s “Sentimentalist” and 2007’s “After All”) with newfound maturity and perspective. “I asked for this / Nothing could break my fall,” he sings, the exquisite orchestration veering eerily off kilter as if beginning to tear apart at the seams. “I broke my own heart / Slammed it against the wall / Only to find what’s obvious to all / Turns out I’m sentimental to a fault.”

“When I was younger, I think I tended to try to be flippant about the sincerity in my music,” Lerche explains, “but now I’m finally accepting my nature. I’m accepting that I’m the kind of person who experiences my feelings very intensely and can shift pretty radically from one emotion to the next in these ephemeral bursts.”

The album, too, contains multitudes. The samba-tinged “Will We Ever Comprehend” (featuring Brazilian singers Rodrigo Alarcon and Ana Müller) struggles to make sense of powers beyond our control; the punchy “Special Needs” (featuring Felicia Douglass of Dirty Projectors) aims to shut the door on the past and start over fresh; and the addictive “Summer In Reverse” (featuring the Tokyo band CHAI) draws on Lerche’s love of Japanese ambient music and city pop as it finds the humor in heartache. “We should get together every summer / And make each other miserable all fall,” he sings, tongue planted firmly in cheek. Elsewhere, the mesmerizing “Magnitude of Love” (featuring famed harpist Mary Lattimore) contemplates the power of memory and remorse, while the spare “What Makes Me Tick” wrestles with what it means to be “the other man,” and the dreamy “Alone In The Night” nods to the Great American Songbook as it grapples with an aging process that slowly robs us of both our bodies and our minds.

“I thought about trying to split this album up by theme or temperature or color,” Lerche says, “but ultimately I realized that I liked the chaos of all these emotions swirling around together because that’s what life is. We can go from nostalgia and regret to desire and ecstasy to frustration and disappointment on a moment’s notice.”

Nowhere is that truth more apparent than the album’s expansive title track, which reckons with the performative masks we don in a world that frequently blurs the lines between the public and the private. “Could we ever be more than an avatar?” Lerche asks before baring his heart in a Dylan-esque frenzy of free association that name-checks Taylor Swift, Drake, Britney Spears, Fiona Apple, Judee Sill, James Blake, Blake Mills, William Basinki’s ambient masterpiece The Disintegration Loops, filmmakers Pete Bogdanovich and Polly Platt, and dozens more in an eclectic series of unexpected combinations.

“It was a way of underlining what art means to me in both happy and unhappy times,” he reflects. “It’s there to speak for us even when we feel like we can’t fully express ourselves.”

And in the end, that’s why Avatars of Love exists at all. Lerche is the first to admit that he never planned on making this album, but sometimes what we plan and what we need are very different things. Sometimes we surprise even ourselves.