Can a song be both hopeful and pessimistic at the same time? That’s the essence of The People’s Record.
Three years after the release of the elaborate box set celebrating their first decade (Labrador 100: A Complete History of Popular Music), Sweden’s Labrador Records is having one of their best years yet. They’ve released three albums in 2010 that stand among the best music they’ve ever released, and among the best indie-pop music in recent memory: Sambassadeur’s European, the Radio Dept’s Clinging to a Scheme, and now Club 8’s The People’s Record.
The duo of Karolina Komstedt and Johan Angergård has been a fixture on the Swedish pop scene since their 1995 debut EP. They predate their label’s existence (Angergård is one of Labrador’s founders). Though their sound has changed in small ways over the years, its core has been constant: romantic, melancholy dreampop. That certainly isn’t lost with their seventh album, The People’s Record, though it’s the biggest leap they’ve taken yet in a different direction. They’ve never been known as globetrotting eclectics per se. Their music often seems focused more inward than outward. I’m sure they’ve been called “introspective” many a time.
Now here they are with an album clearly inspired by the rhythms and guitar sound of African music. That’s obvious right off the bat on the opening song, “Western Hospitality”, even to someone like me, an ethnomusicologist by no means. They’ve clearly taken inspiration from the music of other parts of the world, without completely abandoning their standard musical personality, if that were even possible. This approach continues throughout the album, their first recorded using a producer besides themselves (Jari Haapalainen, who produced Camera Obscura’s brilliant Let’s Get Out of This Country). What’s striking about The People’s Record isn’t just how different it sounds. It’s how familiar it sounds while also sounding different.
Actually, what’s most notable is how well this combination works. In 2010, it isn’t shocking for any musician, or music fan, to splice genres, to mix and match. Still that doesn’t make every combination makes sense. Swedish pop plus African rhythms doesn’t necessarily make sense, but in Club 8’s hands it seems seamless and natural, yet also fresh. “Western Hospitality” marks this as party music that manages to also be thoughtful. Komstedt’s singing like she’s deep inside her own thoughts, but they’re not just about a broken heart or personal struggle. As the music makes the album seem more outward-looking, so do the lyrics. “One day we’ll come to the point when we know what we’re waiting for”, Komstedt sings, over a big, boisterous groove of a song. “We’ll march through the cities”, she sings like she’s leading a movement. The song ends with the voices of people talking.
If this is The People’s Record, music for street corners, that doesn’t mean the focus isn’t still on the way people feel, on the tough emotional roller coaster of life. “Isn’t That Great?”, the second track, sounds as much like party music as the first, but it’s about making a relationship work. As she sings, “I’m gonna take good care of you this time”, the flurry of musical activity behind her makes the intention to do better seem like a triumphant choice. Often, though, those personal feelings are put in a larger context of the crowd. “Shape Up!” might be a wakeup call just to one person, but it sounds like a call to us all, to speak up and get out of our everyday routines. Club 8 are doing the same in that moment and across The People’s Record: shaking themselves out of their routine, and shaking our expectations a bit, too.
An emotional turning point of the album stands around its halfway point. “My Pessimistic Heart” is a song in support for anyone who’s experiencing tough times. When things are tough, who best to turn to than someone who believes that things are always tough? An eternal pessimist has already held any fear, considered any apocalyptic notion. That may seem counterintuitive somehow, but when delivered by Club 8, over such a great melody, it feels like a defining moment. A band whose music is eternally melancholy has found a way to turn that into something hopeful. Can a song be both hopeful and pessimistic at the same time? That’s the essence of The People’s Record.
The album’s second half keeps the upbeat energy going, while the songs focus on identifying with those who find themselves in a sad and bitter state of mind. “Be Mad, Get Ill, Be Still” is an anthem of that. “It seems like a bitter place / let me get under your skin”, Komstedt sings. The world is a place of pain; let’s experience it together. The next song, “We’re All Going to Die”, feels like a continuation of that notion, but looking beyond temporary pain towards the final one. The song’s litany of things we can do in our lives (get in shape, have kids, etc.) is haunted by the final fact of death. Do whatever you want, but know that one day you will die and none of it will matter.
That sober idea carries into “The People Speak”, the album’s final track, but with a note of hopeful fantasy to it. Komstedt’s voice floats as lightly and softly as ever as she sings, “I’m going to be air and sky / when I die”. It’s a beautiful image of death from someone who just stressed to us the cold fact of it.
The People’s Record ultimately feels personal and focused on the public. It’s party music centered upon the fact that we’re all going to die. It’s uplifting music, but that upward movement is towards death. We will feel pain together, experience much hardship, and shed many tears, and then we will die.