Pelle Carlberg has been in bands “since the Middle Ages”, as the bio on his website tells us, and though this is only his second solo album, it hums with the confidence of an artist who has spent years honing his craft. He knows he’s not going to be a “Band to Watch” or a “Big Next Thing”, but at the same time his particular brand of tweed-coat pop is not going away soon. The reason is: there’ll always be a place for witty, clever pop songs with sunny choruses and familiar, but comforting instrumentation. Ah you Hammond organs, accordions, and tambourines, we still love you. And never mind that Carlberg’s closer to 40 than 30, that he’s got a family and the changed set of worries that comes with it—he’s still writing music that shows remarkable insight into the ironies and insecurities of being a young urbanite—yes, we can still relate.
Stick with Pelle past the opening track of In a Nutshell and you’re in for a pleasant surprise: his full-bodied, retro-pop compositions share more with Belle & Sebastian than they do with Coldplay. In fact, this unexpected twee sensibility creeps into a number of songs on In a Nutshell. “Crying All the Way to the Pawnshop”, with its easy-strummed guitar and sunny ‘60s melody, even reminds of the Boy Least Likely To. “I Love You, You Imbecile” has the upbeat ‘70s singalong nature of recent Belle & Sebastian—its celebration of all imperfection trading off between boy and girl.
Carlberg also shares these twee artists’ winking self-awareness and ironic sense of romance. It’s sometimes like Jens Lekman, in the finding of romance in the smallest detail. Not everyone’s sensitive enough to build a song out of something so slight, but “I Touched You at the Soundcheck” succeeds: Carlberg brushes this girl’s hand at the soundcheck, and was his ‘drummer of choice’ for his band, but she turned him down. “Crying All the Way to the Pawnshop” laments the financial effects of consumerism, in the worried way Jof Owen might, perhaps, if his characters grew up past 12: “Crying all the way to the pawnshop / Waiting for my superficial gene to come down / Trying not to buy so many under-eye creams”.
“Middleclass Kid” tackles middle class guilt like early Ben Folds, without as much vitriol but as keen a sense of irony. The chorus “I can hear you in the first row / I can hear you in the second row / Tell me do you feel it too?” is a masterful marriage of vintage pop singalong and a gentle ribbing of his subject. Underneath all these major melodies and retro instrumentation, it’s often only the subtext that cuts. On the ingenious “Clever Girls Like Clever Boys Much More than Clever Boys Like Clever Girls”, it might be that “he wants a woman who has ambitions / that go as far as raising kids”. But part of why the singer’s so likeable is that he’s so good-natured about his scorn. And his characters always seem to have some redeeming qualities. Anyway, as he says, “even a broken clock is right twice a day”.
Pelle Carlberg may indeed “never write a hit song” (as Custard catchily lamented back in the ‘90s), but that’s part of his appeal. His intelligent, unassuming twee-pop songs are self-aware but still charming, unstoppably bubbly but never overbearingly so. On first listen, In A Nutshell is unlikely to bowl you over; but give it a bit of time. Slowly, these pretty, upbeat songs reveal layers of lyrical and musical depth. There are surely more of these sad and funny stories Pelle Carlberg has to tell us—we’ll be waiting to hear each new one with a barely-contained smile.