By Kaylen Hann | 28 August 2011
Perhaps the only dude to use the word “heart” more times than I did in my Beirut review last week, bedroom multi-instrumentalist Emil Svanängen has returned. Returned from what was thought to maybe be his final album under the Loney, Dear moniker, Dear John (2009); returning from solo and fully (even very, very fully) orchestrated international touring; returned with…well, besides that verve for orchestra, nothing really changed about his unabashedly sincere and subtly intricate songwriting. Give or take some flourishes. Sometimes one just has to stay the course.
New release Hall Music—on Polyvinyl just as John was, removed from the bright lights of Sub Pop where Dear saw his Loney, Noir (2005) reissued in 2007—sees our earnest confessor again pinning tender heart after tender heart onto his sleeve like he gets them bulk at Costco. Again, he’s single-handedly wielding an arsenal of instrumentation, pairing each piece up, taking their unique contrasts in mind to build, at times meekly and at times exponentially, something so much bigger and broader than himself: rough clacks of rhythm and xylophones, synth loops and funk-bass, horns and analog keyboards that range from emotion-laden piano notes to some almost sitar-like effect that distorts the folk clarity of opener, “Name.”
Oft rabbit-shy, delicate-boned, and wide-eyed, the songs either hover in a perpetual state of effete, early-Sufjan twee-ish fright, or lull into sussings-out of emotionally stable situations, which eventually escalate into blown-out, sensational bursts. Set to release in early October, Hall Music seems to fixate on these points of shifting and season-turning relationship moments. Love: shifting into stranger sensations, uncertainties, and darker, bruised territory, the album ever-flowing, song by song, from the desperate to the…marrying?
Svanängen seems to have, all the way in Sweden, caught that positive upswing this year that has hooked into so many couples I know and the dude, like all my other long-term relationships friends—he be hankerin’ for marriage in a big way. “Name” repeating the obvious indicant, “I want to see your name next to mine,” is backed with chapel bells which go clanging through following track “My Heart.” The sentiment comes on a little strong, to be honest, but like The Sunday Times has once stated, he’s “A voice that breaks your heart before you can work out what he’s singing…” It may take a song or so, or just something as little as a change of weather, but the album has the knack of working its past the staunchest commitment-phobia.
Hall Music moves in brisk gestures beneath all this weighty material, carried for the most part by Svanängen’s proclivity for brisk, underlying rhythms. Chimes and marimbas clunk vibrantly, like he’s beating on empty milk bottles; “Calm Down” is kept afloat by its flickering loop and autoharp-like strums. These faint and thousand small, light currents carry the songs, hold aloft the pout and plea of Svanängen’s voice like the delicate whisking of silverfish legs. Similarly, “What Have I Become“ sees Svanängen turning over the mic to dainty-voiced female vocalist and long-term collaborator Malin Ståhlberg. Her voice plays a more subtle, silver-lining sort of role to the dark-cloud choruses in a few tracks here, and whatever the reason for his passing on the torch, it isn’t because he can’t get those high notes, as proven in tracks like “D major,” where he hits those falsettos square on the Bee Gees nose. At times, “those falsettos” pair up with all the aforementioned insecurities and clingy phrases to make me realize just how explicitly “not-cool” this album is.
We all know where nice guys finish. My relationship to date with Loney, Dear, perhaps the nicest of the nice singer-songwriter guys, has a warm and half-embarrassed friendship to it that I can only liken to the tender and dorkily mustered relationship between Kevin and Paul in The Wonder Years. While Sufjan has moved on from twee-ish confession to painting himself in wigs and shit, there are some fellas who just, reassuringly, plug away completely unaffected by the winds of trend. Though the album itself has taken on a pivoting sort of aesthetic, caught in the navel of some shifting weather, it is an effort beautifully unchanged and earnest. Like the moral to every Wonder Years episode where Kevin desperately tries to pound Paul into a “cooler” mold: he’s Paul and it just isn’t worth it trying to change the dude. So, sure, you might not score points at a co-ed party for playing Hall Music, and in your bedroom you may experience glimpses of just how uncool it is—in the real settings of intimacy, settings without the pressure. Loney, Dear hasn’t changed much, and that’s what makes this inimitable album such great company. So, fuck Winnie. Tender is the Svanängen—and I wouldn’t change that for a lifetime.