It’s difficult to criticize a band that consciously embraces and makes a virtue of what one might ordinarily focus on to disparage. Such is the predicament offered by Niki and the Dove, a group that is so unapologetic in its renaissance of kitsch that it meets its would-be detractors head-on, undercutting any affront before they have the opportunity to arrive. The group is so totally free of irony in their appreciation of and embellishment of schlock that reproaching them for it amounts to an example of missing the point entirely. Just take a look at the cover art — Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf in front of a full moon and a shooting star, beneath palm trees, their bejeweled apparel glittering in the night’s sky. It’s garish and over-the-top as hell, to the degree that it’s a design you’d expect to see on a tie dye T-shirt at Wal-Mart, but they fucking own it, so how can you really knock them for it?
When addressing the Stockholm duo’s debut album, Instinct, the go-to putdowns one could offer are that it is derivative and hearkens back to arguably the worst decade of popular music, the ‘80s. Yeah, that’s true on both counts, but the attitude Niki and the Dove convey on Instinct is, basically, “So what? That’s what makes us good.” And honestly, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion.
The 12-song record is pure electro space pop, though it’s more trance than dance. Fuzzed-out synthesizer distortion, looped drum machine beats, video game style sound effects and keyboard melodies that shimmer in crystalline fashion comprise the collage of sounds defining the record. The retro, post-disco ‘80s vibe lends itself an anachronistic appeal, shaping a mood akin to that afforded by the soundtrack to 2011’s Drive. Amid all of this is Dahlström’s voice, childlike yet powerful when it needs to be. She sounds like a winter nymph beckoning from a frozen lake, fighting to channel an inner fire. Oddly enough, she offers the finest description of her voice in the opening lines to “In Our Eyes” — “Sometimes I grow so cold / My breath is an arctic wind”. The layered arrangements feel cold, austere and detached, but with Dahlström in the center of them, the end result does not come across as insincere. The instrumentation may be artifice, but the sentiment is genuine. The only trace of irony on the record is “The Drummer”, in which Dahlström declares with utmost earnestness how the drum of her heart is what makes her human while a heavily stylized and processed percussion beats about her.
Dahlström’s lyrical touchstone is the natural world, woodland critters, the seasons and whatnot. But these are totems for her larger fixation on relationships, either mourning their end or expressing an almost hyperbolic level of devotion. Hushed verses bleeding into grandiose, sing-along refrains is the paradigm that most of the songs adhere to. Take the aforementioned “In Our Eyes” as a case in point: the rubberband-flicking bass segues into the overwrought chorus of “If I belong to somewhere / It’s to your arms, Kery / The love I hold is older / Than the sky we lay under.” It’s as glossy and melodramatic as a pop ballad can get, but it’s so deliberate, you swallow the sugariness without reserve. Then there is the Prince send-up “Somebody”, which is so self-assured and funky you have to wonder if the Purple One didn’t pen this himself. “Are you coming out tonight? / Or is it somebody else you’re seeing? / And if there’s somebody you’re seeing / Would you rather be with me?” Dahlström sings in the crashing refrain.
The songs of Instinct strike a balance between light-hearted irreverence and an understated degree of menace and melancholy. For all the uplifting testimonials there is a song like “Winterheart”, a down tempo affair that finds Dahlström struggling to move on from a collapsed relationship. “I go places I don’t really wanna go / I see people holding hands / I think I saw his face / Is it him getting over there?” she sings, expressing the masochistic curiosity over the departed loved one’s status that comes with a break-up. When Dahlström gets to the chorus of “Wintertime’s not for the lonely / It always hits to the heart”, it’s a thoroughly heartrending experience. And not to harp on a Prince connection, but the song certainly elicits comparisons to “Nothing Compares 2 U”.
No song better marries the dichotomy of trepidation and reassurance than “Last Night”, an ode to spontaneity and impulsive romance. Describing a bout of love confined to a single night, the song expresses fatalism and the rapture of living in the moment in equal measure. “Last night we got married in a taxi / I swear I love you / I love you like there’s no tomorrow / And I got no time for second thoughts now / We got tonight and then I have to go”, Dahlström sings, encapsulating a maudlin sentiment among a joyous occurrence.
Yet the album does have its problems, even when analyzed on its own terms. First and foremost, the band is likely to draw comparisons to fellow Swedish group the Knife. The fact that the chorus of opening track “Tomorrow”, while one of the best songs on the record, is unsettlingly similar to the Knife’s “Heartbeats” makes the uphill battle against those comparisons that much harder to wage. Furthermore, there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the musical canvas here. At nearly an hour long, it can be taxing to absorb the record in one setting, as the repetitiveness of fabricated drum patterns and synth lines make the album seem like one long song. The quirkiest song is “The Gentle Roar”, which offers an aboriginal rhythm and finds Dahlström mewling back and forth with herself in different voices as though distinct personas are vying for dominance. Lastly, the abundance of affirming refrains can be so sweet as to damn near put the listener in danger of turning diabetic (in particular, the record’s two bonus tracks, “The Beach” and “All This Youth”, wisely left off the album proper).
Nevertheless, the album remains ridiculously infectious. Try as you may not want to, you’ll be hard pressed to walk away not liking it, or without at least one of the ditties stuck in your head. And even if the electropop genre isn’t your thing, you have to give it to Niki and the Dove for the message they convey in their debut single, “DJ, Ease My Mind”, that music is at times the most dependable solace one can find. It’s a sentiment that sums up the band’s purpose perfectly.