Carlberg is at his best when he sifts through the bittersweet layers of teenage nostalgia. Sadly, The Lilac Time veers off that path too often.
Pelle Carlberg is cute. His music is, anyway. It doesn't sound twee, necessarily. There's enough muscle and power-pop intention to keep it from sounding fey, but the emotion behind them is nothing short of precious. It's not a bad thing all the time. Carlberg's cute, often lovelorn songs usually avoid pretension. So while they are certainly cute, sometimes too sweet or snarky, The Lilac Time never sounds less than sincere.
Carlberg is at his best on the record when he sifts through the bittersweet layers of teenage nostalgia. "1983 (Pelle and Sebastian)" and "Whisper" start the album off by diving into Carlberg's past. It is not full of demons or sad stories. In fact, his memories seem important merely for being in the past. "1983" has Pelle and his friend walking around, trying out fashions and giving cigarettes to questionable characters. It's a simple, finding-my-place song, but nice for its subtle feel of reverie. Carlberg's storytelling is straightforward but effective -- he tells of his dad warning him about being out too late before he offers the cigarette, showing us the silly rebellions that made the young him feel important.
"Nicknames" is a little more overt in its intentions: Carlberg declares "Tonight, I'll be a teenager again." It's a reunion song, and he intends to reunite not just with old friends, but with old habits. It's got the same goes-down-easy pop glide of "1983", and similarly fragile vocal harmonies. Together, the two songs set us up for a nice, afternoon-drive record of innocent but slightly melancholy tracks. It is the stuff that Belle and Sebastian made their name on, for sure, but early on in The Lilac Time, Carlberg doesn't sound as intent on being clever.
But the rest of the record goes away from the teenage memory thread, and suffers for it. It becomes plugged full of pop culture references. Carlberg sings about people who only download their music, and at one point he sings of taking a quiz on Facebook. "Animal Lovers" half-heartedly attacks the title group, as Carlberg claims he's tired of people who love animals, but seems resigned to accepting them. It's tongue-in-cheek, probably, but relies way too much on smug irony to work as anything more than kitsch. "Fly Me to the Moon" is another goofy song about sharing an airplane with a bitchy traveler. Of the second two-thirds of the record, "Because I'm Worth It" might be the best offering. It escapes its simplistic pop-culture premise -- it concerns a girl who wishes to be like models in magazines -- by going back to the feeling of loss, the love of a past you can't get back, that we hear in the earlier, better tracks on The Lilac Time.
Carlberg is always handy with a melody. The sound of The Lilac Time is never off-putting, and almost always pleasant. He covers power-pop and folk-pop and balladry nicely on the record, showing off a wide musical palette. But the subjects he fills these songs with aren't the stuff of memorable songs. If he were to dig a little deeper into the more personal, more charming moments of reverie on this record, he could really have something. But as it stands, you'll probably end up tapping your toe to a lot of The Lilac Time, but you might not find it worthy of too many repeat listens.