Of all the tags that musicians have been pasted with, or pasted themselves with, in recent years perhaps only “P. Diddy” beats out “The Swedish Van Morrison” as the funniest. The latter has been applied with some regularity to Nicolai Dunger, who is a Swede, and who does occasionally sound like Van Morrison. But to be fair, Dunger doesn’t always sound like Mr. Moondance. In fact, I did only one double-take during This Cloud is Learning, a reissue of his 2000 release. And even then it was half-hearted; by that point, Dunger had already charmed me with his own personal style, more subdued and refined than that of his recent, woolly solo performances.
The song in question is “What Tomorrow”. A minor hit in Sweden at the time of its release, it is one inspired piece of mimicry. It hops around for all the world like “Brown-Eyed Girl”, which will either get on your nerves or under your skin. Regardless, the song is unabashed in its influences, and backing band the Soundtrack of Our Lives has the flavor down. If mina birds (talented as they may be) aren’t your bag, there are still 11 other songs without such firmly sown forebear patches on their sleeves.
“This Town” features Dunger’s double-tracked tenor swirling across octaves and over rustic chord changes. Although the songs on This Cloud is Learning are well-structured, there’s a sense of unpredictability throughout due to Dunger’s unconventional phrasing and melodic trajectories. Light percussion keeps “Independence” locked in place, but the song always feels an inch away from spilling over its banks. Instrumental embellishments like banjo and organ are kept low and subtle in the mix, giving wide berth to the vocals, which actually sound closer in timbre to Thom Yorke than any ‘70s folk reference.
Dunger’s phrasing also makes it next to impossible to understand what the songs are about, beyond general impressions. This is an occasional liability. The vocals are always front and center on songs like “When Birds Become Fishes” and “Father”, so you just know there’s important stuff going down. What is it? Beats me. The mumbling diction allows greater emphasis on the melody, but it can also create a bit of distance between the song and listeners. “While Birds Become Fishes” has a wonderful sonic intimacy with its hushed, piano bar atmosphere. That intimacy is deadened somewhat with repeated listens, however, if you’re not allowed in on the sentiment.
But as they say, “This Cloud is Learning”, and as this record is nearly five years old, minor quibbles (the falsetto squawking on “Butterflyin’ Friend”? Yikes!) can be overlooked in the name of “young artist, still maturing.” “Organ Track” is way better than your typical songwriter-takes-stab-at-instrumental wank. Twittering birds sing to each other through the speakers while the tune shows remarkable sophistication. In fact, it communicates far more successfully than most of the album’s lyrics. The single “Something in the Way” is fairly direct and comprehensible, “There’s something in the way you move / Little darling / . . . That makes me happy”, with a lovely “doo-doo-doo” refrain, but it’s still the tune doing all the heavy lifting.
As a pre-cursor to the jazzy Soul Rush and Kentucky-born Tranquil Isolation, This Cloud is Learning ultimately comes off as the gifted younger brother, able to shoulder a lot of the same responsibilities as his elders, but with a slightly gawky, sweetly naïve gait. A new full-length due this year should provide a great comparison study for an artist on a determined path of growth. Note: the Overcoat reissue will feature two tracks not included on the original release.