The poster for Andrew Bird and Loney, Dear’s upcoming Salt Lake City concert (they’re touring the U.S. together this January and February) shows, in a simple but effective design, veins and arteries snaking out from a heart across a map of America. The metaphor of intertwined vessels is sort of apt, for Loney, Dear’s songs wander down unexpected back-alleys, twisting into surprising melodies and exploring the corners of a melancholy/reflective mind.
True, he’s always been melancholy/reflective, but on his fifth album, the Swedish singer-songwriter’s ambition’s expanded. Rather than remain content to craft bewitching miniatures of repetitive folk-pop, Emil Svanangen has found new possibilities in a synth-laden orchestral-pop sound. Using a musical vocabulary pinched from groups like (notably) Death Cab for Cutie, Loney, Dear still manages to sound fresh. He still manages to sound, that is, like Loney, Dear.
Dear John is a more adult record than Loney, Dear has previously made. I don’t mean adult in the way you hear, say, Badly Drawn Boy described: “adult pop”. That means some staid middle-of-road acoustics. Dear John‘s adultness is manifest in a back-alley sense of stained misadventure. These songs are the accompaniment to the time after—after a big night out, rebuffed, walking home alone; after the Murray-Johansen kiss, when he’s driven away, waiting for his plane home; after failed love, when Svanangen falls “twelve stories to the ground”. They reference Bach and Tom Waits. Thunder rumbles in the background.
On Sologne, Loney, Dear’s last album, a song appeared called “The Airport, the City”. It bounced forward on repetitive synth-layers, and Svanangen’s thin falsetto, when it exploded into a shouted-out chorus, was pure joy. That song’s got a successor, Dear John‘s first single and kick-off, “Airport Surroundings”. The songs share more than title vocab: both are superb examples of the musician in optimistic mode, all layer-on-layer and pep. But “Airport Surroundings” twinkles brighter, and more conventional. Instead of an interlude cut through with dissonance and chaos, there’s syncopated horn, pizzicato, and high organ.
Why do these songs work? It’s because they move unexpectedly. “Under a Silent Sea”, for example, becomes twinkling electronica from soft Auto-Tune folk, somehow seamlessly. “Summers” captures some weird alternate-reality where Coldplay, Boy Least Likely To, and some synth-pop group from Europop radio collide, and come out as setting-sun nostalgia. Throughout, Svanangen’s use of tools like Auto-Tune and that martial drum machine give the LP a very modern feel. But the coup-de-grace—the reason, if you’re looking for one, to seek out this album—is a song called “Harm”. The song’s rootless melody gradually turns into an almost-cover (first of Bach, then later of Waits’ “Alice”) and a thrilling, unexpected climax.
It’s not easy to pinpoint what it is about Dear John that has such a powerful, lasting effect. Its tools are exceedingly familiar, but the results aren’t—don’t think Loney, Dear’s latest direction has been cribbed from anywhere. Let it sink in, and Loney, Dear soon whispers/sings/shouts out. This one’s worth hearing.
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