Tor Lundvall
Photo: Dais Records

Haunted By the Sky: The Secret History of Tor Lundvall’s Ambient Pop

With a decades-long career of crafting ambient material as flexible in tone as it is in scope, a new box set reveals secrets to Tor Lundvall’s unknown catalog.

There Must Be Someone
Tor Lundvall
27 January 2023

Tor Lundvall isn’t listed on Metacritic. This might not seem like a big deal to many, but for many recording artists, not having a critical record of your work is strange, especially in the digital era. Lundvall, a painter and ambient pop recording artist, has seen a surge of interest in his work in recent years. His most famous brush with fame is his collaborative record with John B. McLemore, the eccentric subject of the must-discussed 2018 podcast series “S-Town”. He’s had songs featured in Marvel TV shows, and certain tracks have amassed 250,000 plays on Spotify — all signs of modest success for a recording artist and gigantic success for someone so deftly playing in mid- to slow-tempo electropop creations that occasionally drift wordlessly in the ether.

Of course, there have been reviews of Lundvall’s work before; PopMatters has been tracking his career for quite some time. Yet despite all of this, Lundvall still doesn’t have a listing on Metacritic for any of his albums, either due to negligence or the dismissal of Lundvall as a niche artist. While Lundvall has always appeared gracious and unexpecting of accolades in interviews, the sonic songsmith could certainly use a hub tracking the many wild and varied releases throughout his career.

His longtime label Dais Records looks to correct this with the release of There Must Be Someone. This five-CD boxset traces not his entire career but selected highlights, ranging from recent archival releases to his long out-of-print 1997 debut album Passing Through Alone. It’s coupled with his extraordinary 2018 compilation A Strangeness in Motion (Early Pop Recordings • 1989-1999) and his most recent Dais release, 2021’s new set of original material Beautiful Illusions. It may not make the most sense at first glance. Still, by also adding in the odds-and-sods collection Ghost Years, which rounds up one-off singles and alternate mixes from 1995-2010, these albums give a curated overview of everything Lundvall has touched on from 1989 to present, presenting everything from his poppiest keyboard blasts to his most brooding of explorations.

While the re-release of Passing Through Alone is the real highlight here (which has since been re-released as a standalone record), this box set is fused with an over-generous amount of bonus tracks, even for 2021’s Beautiful Illusions. While we have assessed and rated his albums over the years, there was no better person to guide us through these new add-ons than Tor Lundvall himself.

“I’ve always been a sucker for bonus tracks,” amidst Lundvall when contacted by PopMatters. “There’s a lot of unreleased material from the early days, especially things I recorded between 1989 and 1999.” As a home-recording artist who collaborates closely with his brother, there was much to pour through to make his “Early Pop Recordings” collection. The original runtime of A Strangeness in Motion has now been bolstered up to a meaty 18 minutes, as the archives contain many more flashes of digital pop confections that could’ve been hits in another universe.

“The CD edition of A Strangeness in Motion was a good opportunity to release more pop experiments from the archives,” Lundvall notes. “‘South Pacific’ is special to me because there’s an innocence and optimism surrounding the song. In high school, I had a serious longing to live on a tropical island and find the girl of my dreams. I probably watched The Blue Lagoon too many times. It was originally an instrumental I recorded in late 1990. The lyrics came later. The words never quite gelled, but they’re endearing and uplifting, evoking a dream-like escape to another time and place, like ‘The Melting Hour’.

“The seven-year stretch between recording demos for Passing Through Alone and the release of the final album seemed like an eternity,” he continues. “‘Grey Sunday’ is one of my earliest songs, maybe my signature song since I feel it really encapsulates everything my music is about. The demo included in the expanded edition was recorded with my friend Kevin Hoffman in December 1991. He added percussion, and my brother Kurt did the mix. I always felt the vocals worked best when they were bathed in a sea of reverb, so this is the closest to how I originally intended the vocals to sound.”

For those unfamiliar, Lundvall’s vocals are light and airy, often a quiet compliment to his sometimes immediate productions. In his pop songs, he layers them and alters the pitch to make them stand out, and by the time we get to Beautiful Illusions, time has taken a beautiful toll, and his words ring with more innocence, yearning, and clarity than before.

“‘A Room By the Sea’ is an outtake from my album Rain Studies,” Lundvall continues. “I removed it from the running order at the last minute when I was asked to contribute a track for a compilation to help support the late Ania Mehring, the wife of Maciej Mehring, who runs the Zoharum label. The track has a strong atmosphere and always transports me to a room overlooking a stormy beach.”

While it is surprising to see bonus material for Lundvall’s most recent work, he admits there wasn’t as deep of a bench of unreleased material to pool from. “There were very few alternative versions or outtakes from my recent albums, A Dark Place and Beautiful Illusions,” he informs us. “I actually prefer the early version of ‘Negative Moon’ to the final LP version, but it felt too upbeat and didn’t fit with the shadowy mood of the rest of the album. ‘Dark Haired Girls’ was omitted due to vinyl time constraints, but one of the lyrics, ‘Cursed with sensitivity / I was finished from the start,’ was etched into the runoff grooves of the vinyl.

“‘Dark Sea’ was omitted from Beautiful Illusions due to the vinyl running time as well, so I’m glad that I was able to include it on the CD reissue. This instrumental closes the album as I originally intended, returning to the themes I explored in ‘Drowning’. It’s based on one of my early instrumental experiments from 1990.”

Making music is a job on its own, but telling your story and reframing your legacy is an entirely different skill set. Metallica has a person on the payroll who trolls record studios where the band used to record to hunt down lost or unheard sessions that may make for some bounteous Deluxe Edition re-releases years down the line. Tor Lundvall doesn’t have an archivist on payroll because that’s a job he does himself, and by rounding up and enhancing his most recent releases for this box set, maybe his narrative will change. Perhaps it will start by finally getting him listed on a site like Metacritic.