Swedish dream-pop duo Korallreven have never played live, have shrouded themselves in mystery, and have spent the last two years trickling out singles and mixtapes online. Such strategies aimed at capturing the attention of a blogosphere hungry for new music have become a familiar part of the music world in 2011, but Marcus Joons and Daniel Tjäder have proved more adept than most. To a significant subset of web tastemakers hooked on the duo’s serene and tropical electronica, An Album by Korallreven is now one of the most eagerly anticipated records of the year. But while these ten twinkling compositions offer more of the same to those already on board, their potential for longer-term acceptance by the outside world is more doubtful.
Part of what has made all the hype over Korallreven so compelling is that the project has such a good origin story. Several years ago Marcus Joons experienced a musical epiphany of sorts while on holiday in the tiny South Pacific state of Samoa: suddenly confident of “how he wanted the pop music of his dreams to be”, he recruited Tjäder (of dream-pop band The Radio Dept.) while the two lived in Malmö. While exotic escapism has long been an influence on pop musicians from snowy Sweden, the very specific quasi-spiritual experience Joons had in Samoa is the glue that holds this debut together. The backing vocals are influenced by Samoan church choirs, the name of the place is chanted on the songs, and the sounds of warm waves lap at the edges of the bubbling synths. “Korallreven” is not only the Swedish word for “coral reef”, it also sounds like the Samoan for “spirituality”.
True to the escapist nature of pop, what Joons and Tjäder are selling here is a kind of fantasy. In a very real sense, An Album is their South Pacific postcard, a bid to capture for us a sense of how it would feel to be as Joons was, sat on a beach in paradise running away from ourselves. It is easy to imagine that the intricate layering of choir, keyboards and soft beats on “Sa Sa Samoa” might correlate somehow to that experience, soothing and pristine as it is. It is not much harder to grasp how this or Victoria Bergsman’s guest vocal on the more upbeat and bouncy “Honey Mine” could seduce those bloggers with a finger on the pulse of Scandinavian dream pop.
And yet, when it is drawn out to the length an LP demands something changes in the Korallreven sound. Over such extended listening, there arrives a sense that under all the calculated bliss there is an emotional vacuum at the heart of the record. Every moment of every song is testament to the care and labour Joons and Tjäder have put into their music, but for all its immaculate craft and production, An Album often feels bereft of spontaneity and soul. Understandably the appearances by Victoria Bergsman and Julianna Barwick (on “Sa Sa Samoa”) have aroused interest, but the hollow, repetitious lyrics they must contend with rob the songs of some of the impact they might have had. Again like a postcard, the record gives a lot of space over to painting a beautiful picture but doesn’t leave much room for sending the message.
Those influential few who have already fallen for Korallreven will hear nothing on this first full-length effort that will displease them. But to those for whom an album should be something other than more of the same, and those who feel the warm glow of “Loved-Up” but hope for something deeper to follow, it can be a beautifully frustrating experience.