The music of Tor Lundvall is best found in shadows, in rainswept evenings, in alleys lit only by the reflection of streetlamps off of bricks. A painter and a musician, the East Coast ambient legend has built up a quiet fanbase over the last few decades with his unique approach to the genre, getting a bit a bump when he got roped into the popular podcast “S-Town”. The show’s eccentric main subject John B. McLemore was a strange and unifying figure who moonlighted as a musician. Following both his untimely passing and the podcast’s success, a collaborative record of his work with Lundvall came out.
Yet people who have followed Lundvall’s career with any discerning eye know that while “dark ambient” is often an easy box to place him in, his reach is so much grander – and stranger. In 2019, he dropped a stellar archive release of his early attempts at pop recordings, and the year prior, he released his moodiest collection of songs to date. He’s put out holiday EPs, multi-volume box sets, and just about every other unexpected move you’d never expect from a legacy ambient artist. It’s part of what makes his discography so fascinating to dive into.
So it’s a bit of a surprise then that his 14th full-length proper (by his count) is a record as muted, hushed, and nuanced as Beautiful Illusions. While initially intended to be a full-bore instrumental affair, Lundvall was drawn to add vocals to some of his tracks, his faint, ghostly voice plucking a few words at times but never overwhelming. On Beautiful Illusions, ghostly synth pads remain the star of the show, but on certain tracks like the midtempo, almost Gorillaz-esque “Blessings Counted”, a heavy plucked bassline dominates the melody, making for one of the more propulsive numbers in his ambient catalog.
As with Lundvall’s best records, “ambient” is more of a label than a descriptor because Lundvall’s songwriting style remains remarkably insular and distinct. The opening instrumental, “Their Souls”, has a quiet crescendo, as if sunlight is finally cracking through steel-gray clouds, but by the time we get to the closer “Two Windows”, Lundvall’s voice ekes out sad couplets of loneliness. “I miss the light in your garden / I miss the love that broke away,” he mourns, and the effect is palpable.
While Lundvall’s sonic toolkit, unfortunately, contains a few too many excursions into jazz marimba tones (which all but derail the strange strut of “Lonely Boy”), the times when he summons the best aspects of his craft into one place, it becomes something otherworldly and memorable. For Beautiful Illusions, that shot of crystal clear songwriting clarity comes with “Forever Rain”. It’s a yearning song of echoed voices and strange sounds, of reverb softening the blow of thudding percussion, of a guitar line that ably fits into the verses, all backing Lundvall’s recurring lyrical theme of desperate loneliness that is both self-inflicted and deserved. His harrowing lines at times might be too much for some listeners, but on a track like “Forever Rain”, the sweetness of the music helps balance out the psychic weight of his words.
The music of Tor Lundvall exists in a strange place: too linear for fanatic ambient fans but far too loose and ethereal for most looking for electronic songs proper. As has been his core creative tenant with his albums, Lundvall doesn’t seem to care to satisfy any particular group or demographic. He wishes to make his music on his own terms and does so time and time again. This singular mindset sets him apart, and with Beautiful Illusions, he shows no signs of changing his approach anytime soon.