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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Loney, Dear: Dear John

Emil Svanängen's worldwide debut as Loney, Dear (2007's Loney, Noir) was one of the most delightful things to come out of Sweden in some time.  On that remarkable album, Emil introduced himself as a sort of insecure, soft-spoken artist who just couldn't help but write some of the most endearing love songs of the past decade.  To sum up the album with one word, it was "hopeful."  Loney, Dear's newest release, Dear John, retains all of the artist's lovable characteristics, but turns to a darker side of music and love.  Emil has taken his mild feelings of inadequacies and fleshed them out into a bleak, complex album that finds the artist shelving much of his genius pop songwriting in favor of a more minimalist, sullen atmosphere.

One would probably not guess this from the first track on the album.  "Airport Surroundings" introduces a lot of synths and electronic drums, which were apparent on Loney, Noir, but not nearly as prominent as they are on John.  Beyond the upbeat track, however, are some incredibly gloomy lyrics.  Emil sounds as if he's on the precipice of a deep depression, battling with himself as to whether he will give into that hopelessness.  He sings, "I took the fastest way down when I surrendered this time.  I wasn't feeling no good.  I took the easy way out," while adding that "You were all that I wanted."  Hearing Svanängen pine for love is nothing new, but to see it wrapped up in such despair is quite the departure.

Much of Dear John seems to paint Emil as a person who is aware that he is in or near a state of depression, and oftentimes he speaks of "change;" the desire to change into a better version of himself.  On "Everything Turns to You," one of the album's most striking songs, he sings of trying to change only to confess that, "all the times I make it worse with all the devils in my head."  "Change" is a reappearing theme on the album, like on "Harsh Words" where he pleads, "Tell me I'm good enough, that I could change" or later on the fantastic "Distant Lights."  It's clear that Emil is a man at war with himself, and at the very least it makes for a more complex listen.  

Where Loney, Noir saw the artist compiling layers and layers of synths, vocals, and guitars to make large, beautiful sounds, Dear John finds Svanängen taking a more minimalist approach on occasion.  "I Got Lost" is the first time that we get to hear Emil in this way.  With only faint guitars and distant strings to accompany his vocals, the audience is allowed to hear the frailty in his voice when he asks, "Where's my lord to look for me now?"  Later, on "Harm/Slow," one of Dear John's most impressive tracks, Emil sings against a backdrop of looming danger.  The track, as the title suggests is actually two songs in one.  "Harm" seems to be about the artist overcoming his fear of danger, of death, while "Slow" seems to show the artist's depression taking over him, to the point where he ends his life.  He sings, "That's how I fell from top of twelve stories to the ground.  For the reasons I had.  The ones I know, the ones I don't.  For all I forgot, that is all I could do, that is how I want you."  Is this a suicide reference?  It's definitely up for discussion, but the song's abrupt conclusion would seem to allude to an equally abrupt death.

Fortunately for fans of Loney, Dear's past work, there is plenty on this album that is more in line with what you would expect.  "I Was Only Going Out" is classic Loney, Dear, sounding somewhat reminiscent of "The Meter Marks OK," and "Summers" is appropriately titled, as it's a very summery track.  Emil does a great job of spacing these songs out on the album so as not to make it feel so lop-sided.  "Under a Silent Sea" is easily the album's standout track in that it combines the minimalist tendencies of Dear John with the multi-layered ways of Loney, Dear's past albums.  The difference is that the layers on the song are comprised of thick synths, and electronic drums.  By the end of the song you're more likely to think you're listening to a dance album than Loney, Dear.  At over 5 1/2 minutes, it's also the longest track on Dear John, but every second of the song is enchanting and I've listened to it at least a dozen times in the past few weeks.

Musically, emotionally, and lyrically, Dear John is all over the place.  Through it all, however, it is Emil Svanängen's endearing personality that ties everything together and makes the album feel like a coherent piece of art.  He is so honest in his work that you feel as if you know him personally, that you experience all the ups and downs of his life right beside him.  Few artists are as open as Svanängen, and as a result, it's not often that an album of this caliber comes around.  There have been rumblings in recent months of putting Loney, Dear to rest, and if that turns out to be the case, there can be no denying that Dear John is the artist's magnum opus.  It is an album, so beautiful, so heartbreaking, touching, and real that it begs to be listened to over and over again.  

Key Tracks:
1. "Airport Surroundings"
2. "Everything Turns to You"
3. "Under a Silent Sea"
4. "Distant Lights"
5. "Harm/Slow"

10 out of 10 Stars
(Yes, really)

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