Dybdahl attempts to win over the US with his gentle, subtle Norwegian pop
Phillipe Starck, the iconic modern designer of everything from armchairs to watches, is a fan. He's contributed art direction to the CD booklet and jacket cover for Norwegian singer-songwriter Thomas Dybdah's latest album, Science -- which, though symbolic enough in an obvious sort of way, may primarily suggest Starck's best work is in more concrete design projects. You see the cover of the album, a photographic close-up of Dybdahl's eye with his name and Science in futuristic orange-and-black lettering, but don't get a strong sense of what the singer's all about. It's the booklet's centerpiece that is the real visual metaphor -- a guitar enveloped by green grass. Even that's not totally accurate to Dybdahl's music, though, which is assured, straightforward pop. Sure, the strings-guitar-and-keyboard thing does have overtones of the organic, but you minimize the album's certain charm to think of it in those terms alone.
Science is Dybdahl's fourth album (his first on Rykodisc), and it's pretty assured in its conception as a pop album. Eleven three- or four-minute tracks that build up off from upright bass, soft snares, and an atmospheric string section. But talk to Dybdahl about the disc, and you hear something strange -- the biggest influence on him over the past while has been the Estonian sacred-minimalist composer Arvo Part. Unusual as it is for a pop singer (as Dybdahl assuredly is) to be citing a rather esoteric (if often incredibly beautiful) modern composer, there’s something to it. Call it a certain patience in the careful placement of held-out notes in the strings, blending together to create a mood not predicted from the individual notes. Take “Still My Body Aches”, the disc’s third song, as an example. Where a pop singer like John Mayer would have maximised the subtle soul overtones of the verse, or made the chorus held-out beauty, Dybdahl dresses up the verse in soft string dissonance, his voice cracking through its lines with obvious emotion. The effect is both complex and full of intended emotion. What Dybdahl can’t match of Part, though, is that composer’s rigour, the dogged adherence to a formula that’s part of the Minimalist aesthetic.
You won’t hear Part, really, too much in Science, but you will hear plenty of other singer-songwriters. Most obvious, especially when Dybdahl gets sensitive, is Jeff Buckley. “U” has Buckley’s cracking-with-emotion voice and a similar way of pausing just before a phrase’s high-point specifically to emphasize this crack. But of course the Norwegian can’t match Buckley’s mesmerising voice -- it’s more fragile here, and the thinness drains the song’s soaring melody of some of its power. Similarly, “U”’s easy jazz instrumentation and rhythms don’t have the bite that made Buckley’s songs on-edge, and therefore compelling.
Lyrically, Science at first seems like typical singer-songwriter fare. In Norway, Dybdahl’s atheism has become the major focus of discussion surrounding his music, but it’s only after you know this fact that you come to read more, philosophically, into his music. Really, this aspect of Dybdahl is exactly as it should be -- seamlessly a part of him in the same way any other emotion or feeling motivates songwriting for any singer-songwriter. So the passing references –- e.g. “My deep frustration on Creation and other fairytales” -– so quickly pass by that you don’t even notice. More of a feature is life’s absurdity, the classic existential subject. On “This Year”, an easy Hammond organ and lapsteel guitar-driven ballad (with country overtones –- you’d swear you’ve heard this chorus before), Dybdahl sings: “Am I wrong to assume that the world is absurd / When religion comes first and knowledge comes third … It’s a sad story, but greed is our top skill”.
A lot of Science is still fairly straight-ahead signer-songwriter pop, lush and beautiful and maddeningly familiar. It doesn't have the spinning-out slow beauty of guitar-pop bands like Art of Fighting or the sense of calm of the White Birch, but still this is smart music, fully orchestrated and inordinately confluent. It only helps that Dybdahl’s thinking hard about the construction of music, his modernist musical and philosophical idols.