by Chris Hatch
Swedish songwriter, Emil Svanängen, returns with a collection of delicate, tender compositions that have the kind of nuance that makes them the perfect accompaniment to both the fading twilight and the brightening dawn
It was when Sub Pop reissued breakthrough record, Loney, Noir in 2007 that the music world got their first proper taste of Loney Dear’s work – and, in it, they found soft, multi-layered indie pop that grew and blossomed with each subsequent verse and chorus. Tracks like Hard Days 1, 2, 3, 4 and Carrying A Stone saw drums, woodwind, guitars, and handclaps gradually reaching a poppy crescendo, like a snowball rolling downhill and getting larger and faster as it goes. For many, Loney Dear records that followed that mass blend of instruments and steadily blooming song structures became the bed upon which Svanägen’s distinctive voice would lay.
Initial listens of Loney Dear’s latest, A Lantern and a Bell, leave you wrong-footed. Svanägen’s familiar falsetto is as glacial and as shivering as ever, but his ambient, textural soundscapes don’t ever quite flourish in the way you expect. Instead, they slowly bubble away below the surface to create moments of tension and atmospheric feelings of comfort, of recompense, or of regret. On album-opener Mute/All Things Pass, Svanägen buries sea bird calls amongst soft piano and droning synths to conjure up images of shimmering light reflecting back off gentle waters, while final track, A House and a Fire, carries one of the album’s strongest melodies along on a softly shifting undercurrent of plush ambient textures.
For all of Svanägen’s production trickery, A Lantern and a Bell is essentially a piano and vocal album – and on the tracks where the Swede strips things back his songwriting shines. Habibi (a clear black line) is far more stirring than its modest structure and production should allow it to be – a beautifully compact piano ballad that feels both nostalgic and hopeful. Likewise, the dreamy, soulful – Last Night/Centurial Procedures (the 1990s) – slips in and out effortlessly, yet leaves its melody lingering long in the memory.
A Lantern and a Bell is a collection that’s loosely tied together with themes of the sea, but rather than being drenched in water, it’s instead tinged with the subtle scent of seaweed, and leaves a tingling speckle of salt on the cheeks. The ominous, ambient electronica that Svanägen swathes his songs in creates illusions of grey, steel, freighters breaking through the misty, early morning murk – ghosting in and out of vision like the ideas and themes that surface and sink throughout the record. Like Justin Vernon’s remote cabin in the woods that inspired Bon Iver’s debut record, Svanägen has used his unique surroundings on Stockholm’s Södermalm peninsula to colour and shape his latest album. While A Lantern and a Bell doesn’t crescend in the sense of traditional Loney Dear records, it instead develops and grows with each listen; its murmuring synths and sublime songwriting creates transportive and transformative ripples that gradually seep through the skin and saturate the heart.
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