In a generation of growingly blurred lines between musical styles and influences, sir Was feels like a form of natural evolution, his music deeply informed by the past but remaining effortlessly modern. While so many new singer-songwriters seem to be sonically influenced by hip-hop, Gothenburg-born globetrotter Joel Wästberg, the man behind the moniker, skews the typical hi-hats and 808s for deep, heavy beats that are as much Portishead as they are GZA or Dilla. In doing so, he crafts moments of deep self-exploration and rich sonic outputs on his debut album, Digging a Tunnel.
The album was heavily previewed by a number of singles, as well as a couple of the tracks appearing on his debut EP, says Hi. As a result, only half of Digging a Tunnel‘s ten tracks are being heard for the first time here. It can often feel like listeners are being shortchanged (or like the musician was short of ideas outside of a few impressive singles) when this happens. However, when those tracks being revisited include “A Minor Life” and “Falcon”, it is easy to forget you have heard them before and allow yourself to be captivated all over again. “A Minor Life”, in particular, is a swirling collage of samples, downbeat drums, and Wästberg’s falsetto that best capture the sir Was aesthetic.
The album is packed with musical range and variety, from the piano-led shuffle of “Revoke”, with its synth line swirls and sample of “Last Night I Was Sleeping” by Antonio Machado, to the ominous toll of bells in “Interconnected”. There is also a momentary experimentation with rapping on “Falcon”, as Wästberg thoroughly explores his obvious influences. The result is more spoken word than multisyllabic masterclass, but it still proves that the clear delineation between styles has long since blurred and they have never looked less likely to return. What remains constant throughout Digging a Tunnel, however, are the psychedelic vocals, sample-heavy production, and melancholic beats. That helps create a consistent sound that binds the record together. Recorded, performed, and produced by Wästberg, with support from Henrik Alser in mixing and mastering the album at Stampen Studio in Gothenburg, Sweden, Digging a Tunnel is a testament to the creative mindset of Wästberg and the DIY mentality that pervades modern music.
The songwriting is equal parts subtle and refreshing. Right from the lovelorn opener, “In the Midst”, there is a depth and somber reflection that runs throughout the album. “A Minor Life” is the best example of this, as Wästberg ponders: “Stayed behind these walls too long / Kept my life on hold too long / Dreaming of all I was not / Slowly walking up, I guess.” It is a surprisingly introspective album, dominated by past relationships but with touches of wider reflections (as seen on “Digging a Tunnel”). It is these moments that intrigue most, although they’re, sadly, in the minority.
Vocals, meanwhile, are not Wästberg’s greatest strength; when they’re overexposed, they can grate and drag the tracks down. More often than not, though, they are judged well, with just enough exposure to let the song speak for itself.
For a relatively low tempo record, it is ignited by moments such a “Bomping”, which captures the moment a street performer is found playing his harmonica and discussing his desire to play on stage. The big bass beat adds punch to the instrumentation, transporting you to that moment and place and helps you feel the hopes and dreams of the player coming through his music. The record is filled with snippets, samples, and sounds from daily life, such as the train sounds at the close of “Digging a Tunnel” and the birds at the start of “Revoke”. This helps to ground the album, and while it can often swirl in an almost otherworldly manner, these soundbites nevertheless serves as a journal of the travels Wästberg made while recording the album. It’s a log of those experiences, which informed his introspective musical output.
The closing triumvirate of “Interconnected”, “Leave It Here”, and “Sunsets Sunrises” provides a strong sign off for a well-paced record. It could have easily dragged under its own stylistic weight if even one more track been included. Instead, we are left with a succinct statement of understated ambition. “Sunsets Sunrises” hints at the risk of overexposing Wästberg’s vocals, but its builds in a way that is not dissimilar to how you might imagine an indie-inspired Massive Attack track, creating a sense of atmosphere and providing a satisfying finale. Across the album, there are moments that underwhelm, yet there are others that really impress and draw you into Wästberg’s world. As debut albums go, it’s a strong mark of artistic intent and suggests there is more to come from a man who typifies the DIY-led and genre-defying output of modern music.