Another album that makes Sweden sound like paradise, jj n° 2 is a youthful, elemental, and startlingly beautiful piece of music that doesn’t simply transcend the mountain of hype it’s already received, but completely defies it.
Thanks to the sudden advancement of bands like Studio and the Tough Alliance, and labels like Sincerely Yours, Sweden has summarily become the new Iceland. What do I mean by that? Recall a time not terribly long ago when Iceland could do no wrong, when the country’s heavy hitters were making American hearts explode with majestic, pristine music that seemed to speak volumes about the patch of earth from which it came. For those of us who had never seen Iceland for ourselves, this idealization was all we had to go on. I envisaged it as a twinkling wonderland, someplace fine enough to die in, and whenever I talked about it with a friend we’d just nod our heads soberly, as if the same Sigur Rós track had once killed us both and made us dream of better environs.
But then it kind of went out of fashion; all that imposing beauty can really wear on a person after a while, and besides, that’s just pop culture’s motion for you. I think it was Björk’s polarizing head-scratcher Volta and Sigur Rós’ ho-hum Hvarf/Heim, released within months of each other in 2007, that sounded the death knell. Enter Swedish Balearic pop, an aerated, lighter-calorie incarnation of European euphony. As with Iceland, most of us haven’t experienced Sweden in any major capacity, so we’ve been listening to its music for clues. From the available evidence, it’s beachy, but cool and stately too, a place you might visit to watch the waves and contemplate your life instead of kick around a beach ball. This may or may not be an accurate description of the Swedish coastline (what do I know), but no doubt this music has gotten us dreaming again. You can almost hear the corks popping at Sweden’s tourism headquarters.
The acts that orbit around this aesthetic have cohered into a family of sorts, each one containing the same roots but slightly different individual characteristics. If Studio and Jens Lekman are the parents—elder statesmen with maturity and style—and Air France and the Tough Alliance are the older siblings (the former mellow and overachieving, the latter playful and extroverted), then jj is the baby, easily the cutest and most elemental of the clan. Babies have no worries, aside from, you know, getting basic needs met; they don’t have to know about algebra or natural disasters or the stock market. And jj n° 2 is so carefree that listening to it is practically entering a regressive state. I hear a lot of talk among twenty- and thirty-somethings about how innocence is the most valuable aspect of childhood, and darn if jj n° 2 isn’t innocence encapsulated, a space where darkness and pessimism haven’t just been banished, they’re completely unheard of.
Even the voices wafting through jj n° 2 sound like children. I don’t know who jj are—they’re from Sweden, yes, and there are probably two of them, but the band is so anonymous that even the status of their anonymity is a mystery: Are they morally opposed to publicity, or are they simply trying to keep their art separate from their personal lives? Beats me. But there’s so much to know in those strikingly young, androgynous voices; one listen and they’re familiar, like hearing your little sister’s voice poking out of a crowd. The first lyrics of “Masterplan” are some of the most childlike I’ve ever heard, hands down: “Want to hear my master plan? / It’s my master plan / Want to hear my master plan? / Here is my master plan”. Seriously, how cute is that? It’s also fitting that for an album radiating such a youthful glow, the vocals are exceptionally beautiful, even freer and lovelier than this rather fey genre usually produces. Those harmonies in “From Africa to Málaga”—my goodness. On that very first listen, I verily gasped and my heart leapt. I can’t remember the last time indie rock did that.
This level of quality is ridiculously hard to challenge, which may be part of the reason jj n° 2 has remained on the hipster tip despite that it isn’t very hip. There are few concessions to that culture here, excepting the Lil Wayne cover “Ecstasy”, which turns Tha Carter III’s “Lollipop” into a weird, stoned slow-dance. Each and every song is coated in sea spray reverb, the sort that makes you wonder if you’ve been tricked into listening to new age or whether your old man spun something similar to it when you weren’t looking. “Things Will Never Be the Same Again” is condensed prog-reggae, beginning with a fiddle so shamelessly ‘world music’ that those who continue on from it will have passed a kind of test, and in the faded chimes of “Intermezzo” I detect Hiroshima, the Japanese collective that brought Eastern influences to smooth jazz after Kitaro. Even the rhythms are hard to call cool: Tablas and congas dance around metronomic bass thumps and splashing snares, which cohere into a trot that binds the album together. Still, I’d like to believe that plenty of young folks have moved beyond new age revulsion and begun to embrace artists who endeavor to do something seriously awesome with the deadest of Gen-X music.
Besides, that’s what Balearic Beat has always been about, from its mid-‘80s origins to its ‘00s makeovers. And if the fruits of the genre approach the startling divinity of jj n° 2, I can’t see it going away soon. Indeed, there’s something a little... eternal about jj n° 2, a proverbial fountain of youth. The music’s perpetual echo feels more angelic and apparitional than druggy, the big fat pot leaf on the album cover referring to a particularly narcotic experience rather than narcotics themselves. After all, how enticing is the fantasy of spending a lifetime at the beach, forever young, surrounded by the mild scents of Banana Boat and ocean mist? At low volumes, and heard all the way through, jj n° 2 is like putting a seashell to your ear and hearing the waves crash off in the distance. Pick up that same seashell ten years later, and the water will still be there. Maybe it will sound even more beautiful than it did when you found it. Who knows? I can’t wait to hear how this record sounds when I’m older and I discover it again.