There is an immediate sort of intimacy to Tor Lundvall’s music. A painter as well as a musician, Lundvall wastes no time bringing you into his world, and he does so largely with a minimum of obfuscation. His albums have titles like
The Park, Empty Cities, and Ice, and are unfailingly adorned with paintings of the mood he is trying to achieve. Mostly, these artworks are shown from a distant point of view, aural and visual descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes, the human figures largely obscured and incidental, the real beauty existing in the margins.
A Dark Place is different. The painting that accompanies it has no background, only a vaguely human head, one side of which appears as something of a demon, the other side a wraith, perhaps. Neither side is particularly welcoming. For Lundvall, it signals a foregrounding of themes and emotions that until now only provided interest as part of a wider picture. Lundvall is looking inward, and he doesn’t necessarily like what he sees.
A Dark Place is borne of the darkest of times in Lundvall’s life: the death of his father. “There is a lot of pain, fear, and sadness wrapped into these eight songs,” he says in a press release that accompanies the album. We hear all of those things in the heavily-effected synth work. We see them in the blues and blacks of his artwork. And for the first time in a long time (since 2009’s Sleeping and Hiding), we feel them in his words.
Lundvall sets the scene magnificently: “Quiet Room” and “Haunted By the Sky” exist to give us an idea of what we’re hearing, to give us a sense of the aesthetic. There’s a pulse to every single one of these songs, a steady, muted, but not even all that slow beat that sounds like it’s coming from the club a block away. On top of these pulses are synths and more synths, heavy on the reverb, heavy on the delay, heavy on the acid wash. Lundvall builds pillows and blankets out of these sounds. There is absolutely nothing abrasive, nothing immediately difficult. There is only quiet, resigned sadness in ambient electronic form.
Much the same approach is applied to Lundvall’s vocals. Lundvall sings just above a whisper, making explicit the images that the music behind him evokes. It’s mostly a lonely, dark still life, as sung by a lonely, sad man; the fourth track “The Invisible Man” is as archetypical as anything in its approach, with lyrics like “Can you see me there / In the other room? / Can you hear me sigh / As the shadows loom?” Your mileage may vary of course, but it’s good stuff if you’re going in with the intent to wallow.
The latter half of
A Dark Place picks up a little bit, even if the lyrical conceit stays relatively constant. “Negative Moon” is not a million miles from Depeche Mode deep cut territory, with a tempo that picks up the pace a little bit and a three-note bass motif that propels the song forward rather than letting it stand still. “The Void” has another great bass line, featuring tritone jumps that give the song a bit of bounce, nicely counteracting the vaguely cheesy creaky door / hungry zombie sound effects. Finally, closer “The Next World” actually lets the sun in a bit with gentle four-note keyboard arpeggiations driving a loving paean to the possibilities of life after death. Lundvall lets heavily-echoed female vocals into the mix here, giving it the feel of a mellowed-out Information Society, or maybe late-period Apoptygma Berzerk. Comparisons aside, it’s a gorgeous track, the strongest on the album and by far the most memorable.
“The Next World” is enough of a taste of what a little variance in texture could mean for Lundvall’s music that it’s easy to wish he’d lightened up, just a bit, elsewhere on the album. That said, to do so would have been missing the point. There’s a reason the happiest music is saved for the ending, and that reason is not a particularly cheerful one.
As a concept and a feat of construction, then,
A Dark Place is marvelous. It’s difficult as a listener, however, to keep from getting bogged down in repetition or malaise. It is an easy-to-listen-to sort of sadness, but it is sadness nonetheless. Given the subject matter, one can’t really ask for more, but one can’t necessarily be asked to “enjoy” it, either.