Like Elliott Smith's Figure Eight, this fourth from the Swedish songwriter takes a turn toward baroque large-ensemble arrangements. And like Smith, Martin Gustafsson is able to expand his wistful songs without undercutting their vulnerability.
Martin Gustafsson, AKA Boy Omega, has been making delicate, emotionally vulnerable yet catchy music for about five years now in his native Sweden. If you haven't heard of him -- and most people haven't -- it's likely because of distribution problems. The record in question, his fourth, has been out on a hodgepodge of European labels since late last year and slipped into the US, ninja-style, only this spring on Spanish Acuarela in partnership with underground pop label Darla. He is making a very modest splash here, while similarly orchestrated pop outfits backed by larger entities -- Loney, Dear, We're from Barcelona, Architecture in Helsinki, et. all -- gather the headlines. If a 12-person ensemble pop song falls in the forest and no one hears it...well, you get the idea.
Actually, the liner notes credit 14 musicians, including Gustafsson, and perhaps twice as many instruments (Gustafsson himself plays 16 of them, not counting vocals). Per-Ola Eriksson, who appeared on The Black Tango two years ago, kicks in three different varieties of keyboards, plus electric guitar. People are pulled in indiscriminately for bit parts on violin, cello, trumpet, saxophone, and tuba. You could probably put together a reasonable version of the 1812 Overture just with the individuals listed on the inside sleeve. This is definitely not just a guy with a guitar and a stool.
And yet, the songs are surprisingly delicate and spare, the words and melodies given precedence even when the arrangements swell. "Suffocation Street", the first single, rides a nervy swash of strings, a jittery jangle of acoustic and electric guitars, yet it's all backdrop for the singing. Gustafsson's voice is a bit haggard, a little worn, it seems, from carrying all that feeling. And yet even raspy, it rides the instrumentation like a surfer on a wave, curving, bobbing, weaving but never getting washed out. "The Blues and the Bee Sting", swaggering with big brass band flourishes, also leaves room for vulnerability ("I miss your kisses...how they would bite.") These two songs might remind you a little of Head of Femur, who also pile on the musical textures ad hoc, but without ever tipping the wagon.
The big whiff of familiarity, though blows from Elliott Smith's direction, especially on the lovely, acoustic "Tonight, I'm Swimming," backed at first just with piano and kicking, asymmetrical drum rhythms. It's partly Gustafsson voice, of course. He has the same high, reaching tenor as Smith, the same tendency to leap the octaves and clear them, but just. Yet as the song swells, mid-course, into a big string-slathered refrain, you remember Smith's way of turning delicacy into something larger. You remember how Figure Eight at first sounded over-orchestrated and later, after dozens of listens, seemed just right. Gustafsson seems to be on just that sort of trajectory, pushing his songs into larger, more dramatic territories, while at the same time, keeping them personal and inward looking.
Hope Is on the Horizon, then, is a much denser, more elaborately arranged album than The Black Tango. It is also more coherent and manageable, with fewer experimental intervals in between songs and more continuity between tracks. It doesn't have a lot of really hummable, ear-sticking songs that you remember right off the bat, but while it's on, it's very enjoyable. In a way, Hope Is On the Horizon feels like the first finished pop record from a talented home recorder, far along from alpha, but not quite omega yet. Let's hope it wins him enough notice that he can continue to move along a very interesting arc of personal and musical development.