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On Your Side

(Filter US; US: 28 Sep 2004; UK: 3 Nov 2003)

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space

Recent years have ushered in a new wave of Britpop that offers an overcast alternative to sunny California provincialisms. Armed with patient tempos, pretty melodies, and a varying disposition towards optimism, these bands have carved out a highly recognizable niche where ups and downs coalesce into a mild strain of nonchalance. Oddly enough, they also seem to wield one-word names: Travis, Keane, Starsailor, and Doves to name a few.

Add to that list another one-word name: Magnet, the vehicle for Norwegian songwriter Even Johansen. On Your Side is Johansen’s latest offering, an album of recollection, loneliness, and inward assessment that applies the lush, haunting Britpop with panoramic generosity. The songs are confessional and naked, wrapped in luscious arrangements that sop up tears like foliage on a forest floor. On Your Side brims with bounteous atmosphere and emotion, a spacious strain of string-spiced pop that expands under the direction of Johansen’s space-cowboy-in-training.

“The Day We Left Town”, an escapist ode to torching the house and leaving for good, detonates into a Technicolor version of the Notwist’s Neon Golden: itching electronics and gestating strings tow Johansen towards a horizon where “flames kiss the sky”. Skittering electronics swagger around ambient wind chimes like a pop Phillip Glass in “Last Day of Summer”, which cautions, “You’re still trying to mine for memories in a ghost”. Johansen’s proximate, breathy vocals (which occasionally leave traces of Thom Yorke and Grant Lee Phillips) ache in the velveteen waltz of “Everything’s Perfect” and float into falsetto in the subtle soul of “Overjoyed”.

There’s a sensation of universality in Magnet’s songs, like a giant cinespace of waking dreams for an expansive, life-logged audience. The melodies soar and sparkle, the instrumentation is humid and textured. Likewise, Johansen wearily pursues recognizable themes of expired love: holding onto someone merely for the memory they evoke (“Last Day of Summer”); trying to revive a memory while refusing to see the present for what it really is (“On Your Side”); the lure of addiction jeopardizing a relationship (“Where Happiness Lives”); attempting to lift a lover’s depression in vain (the Radiohead-esque “Smile to the World”). “You said you’d die for me,” Johansen rattles in the opener “Everything’s Perfect”, “So why can’t you live for me?” The odd thing about On Your Side is that no one track stands out as more empowering or accomplished than another; Magnet’s music is like Paxil to the memories it confronts. As a result, the record’s dreary haze flatlines early and causes the final third to lag in a funk of sameness.

Even the sleepy cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”, a duet with the similarly silk-lunged Gemma Hayes, is non-committal and begrudgingly resigned. Johansen interprets Dylan’s country tune as a cinematic dream-march, staffed with a throng of brass and strings. While it’s not one of the greatest songs in Dylan’s oppressive catalog, it’s an appropriate fit for Magnet’s morning-after pleas.

On Your Side has been available in the UK for nearly a year now, and has since gone Gold in Johansen’s home of Norway. Domestically, it is now the inaugural release for Filter Magazine’s newly launched record label. (Coincidentally, Magnet bears the same name as one of Filter’s competitors in the publishing world, so try not to be confused. If Magnet Magazine becomes a label and signs Filter, there’s a conspiracy afoot.) The US release sports three bonus tracks, all of which are unidentifiable from its official sequence: “Chasing Dreams”; the synth Pet Sounds bounce “Wish Me Well”; and “Little Miss More or Less”.

Magnet is a likeable, inoffensive presence on the stereo, and On Your Side could very well be this year’s album of choice for swooning college students nursing a past heartbreak. But under its lovely spell of swirls and billows, Magnet is glassy eyed and insubstantially precious. On Your Side is a tempered exhalation: a giant, heaving sigh that simply runs out of air unnoticeably fast.

Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.

Tagged as: magnet
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