The Radio Dept
Clinging to a Scheme
By David Greenwald | 26 May 2010
One has to wonder what the Radio Dept.’s scheme truly is. In an era where musician mystique often seems like an endangered species, the Swedish band has remained mysterious by letting its painfully personal songs do the talking. Perhaps it’s a Nordic thing, as countrymen like Jens Lekman or the Tough Alliance and their Sincerely Yours label operate under similar silence, but regardless, the Radio Dept.’s shadowy maneuvering has felt more the product of shyness than calculation. The group’s privacy has up until very recently been cause for blogosphere avoidance, not speculation—leaving the multiple delays of Clinging to a Scheme still up for analysis. When a rapper delays a release, it’s almost expected: such albums are scheduled in advance like summer blockbusters, only with the only outwardly obvious repercussions for a missed deadline an olive branch leak or two. (Big Boi: we love you, but c’mon already.) But the Radio Dept. record for Labrador, not Def Jam; it’s hard to imagine their contract forcing them to declare a date too early, much less the two or three the label announced before finally carving April 21 out in stone.
Like, say, the Lost series finale, Clinging to a Scheme answers questions with more questions—and, thankfully some of the band’s best songs. Let’s start with the sonics: 2006’s Pet Grief, the band’s last full-length, found the group embracing the cool clarity of hi-fi synthesizers and drum machines and largely putting aside their guitar pedals. Except for some mild fuzz bubbling on “The Worst Taste in Music” and the brittle chords of “Always A Relief,” it was an album almost entirely without guitar distortion. Clinging to a Scheme goes back to the band’s early, fuzzier bent, with out-and-out rockers “This Time Around” and “The Video Dept.” picking up where songs such as “Pulling Our Weight” and “Ewan” left off, with cauterizing analog noise filling the mix. Throughout, the record finds the group dropping down the ladder a rung or two fidelity-wise, edging the rich midrange of their last album into more treble-driven territory. What prompted the stylistic shift is unknown, but where the album pushes forward is in the happiness department: tempos surge and keyboards bounce on certifiable party jam “Heaven’s On Fire,” while “David” grooves like a Lauryn Hill track covered by Joy Division.
The production decisions find the band landing comfortably among the chillwave trend of the last year or so, which—along with being really fucking good—is likely the cause of their pre-release Hype Machine chart dominance. Radio Dept. remain on another level from the like-minded newcomers, however—for one, a decade’s experience went into the writing and recording of this music, and even on minimalist tracks like “A Token Of Gratitude,” the mix rests flawlessly. The band never confuses lo-fi’s bedroom focus with playing too loud (no offense, Sleigh Bells) and one could get lost for weeks in the hypnotic embrace of intertwined guitars and keyboards.
The music’s not all that’s evolved. The Radio Dept.’s past albums were about unrequited emotions, the wallflower heartbreak and identity crises of an insecure youth. Clinging to a Scheme finds the act besting its shyness, only to find a new set of adult issues. It’s evident from the get-go as the album opens with “Domestic Scene”—“Domestic scene / What’s missing here?” singer Johan Duncanson asks. “A Token of Gratitude” finds him offering someone a gift—and having to explain that he’s not being ironic. “I’m not joking,” he sings, before noting, “Do I love you? / Yes, I love you / But easy come, easy go / Don’t let me down.” In the lonely world of the Radio Dept., that line drops like an atom bomb. That romance has been achieved at all for a group with a track titled “I Don’t Need Love, I’ve Got My Band” might be triumph enough, even if it’s not the fairy tale expected. “This Time Around,” bolstered by a rollicking drum loop and telegraphing fuzz-guitars, offers the strength to face a futile reality: “All the things we’d hoped for are gone.” Duncanson’s vocals are swathed in static and reverb, rendering many of the words purposefully just out of reach and burying their cynicism in the contrary energy of the music—existentialist dread delivered with religious ecstasy.
One can only wonder about the biography that inspired the band’s new ruminations over the last half-decade. By contrast, Pet Grief and its predecessors trafficked in sadness and anger, in the jealous narrator taking solace in his vinyl collection on “The Worst Taste in Music” or the “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”-like hopelessness of “The City Limit.” It’s a pleasure to hear the band sounding happy; it certainly took them long enough. At 35 minutes, I only wish there was more. And that’s the real mystery of Clinging to a Scheme: in four years, this, stunning as it is, was all the band chose to muster (along with a handful of worthy EPs, yes). Pet Grief’s success lay in constructing itself, even at a mere 37 minutes, like a three-act play, with pacing and instrumental interludes drawn in a perfect narrative arc. Clinging to a Scheme feels more haphazard, more Revolver (1965) than Abbey Road (1969) as it goes from searing ambience (“A Token of Gratitude”) to the thicker-figured dance tracks. The album leaves you wanting more—whether this is for better or worse is one question you’ll have to answer for yourself.