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Loney Dear
A Lantern and a Bell Andrew Bulhak , April 21st, 2021 07:56

A Lantern and A Bell finds Loney Dear paring back their sound, but the record still sparks joy for Andrew Bulhak

A Lantern And A Bell is the eighth album from Swedish composer/songwriter Emil Svanängen, who records as Loney Dear, and his second, following 2017’s self-titled album, on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. Svanängen, who hails from the southern city of Jonköping though now lives in Stockholm, started making home-recorded albums of meticulously arranged, intensely introspective chamber-pop in the early 00s and releasing them on CD-Rs. In 2006, he had a breakthrough with his fourth album, Loney, Noir, which caught the wave of gently upbeat yet wistful indie pop coming out of Sweden alongside the likes of Jens Lekman and Peter, Björn and John, getting re-released internationally by SubPop and Parlophone. His next album, the darker, more electronic Dear John, did not repeat its predecessor’s commercial success. Its successor, 2011’s Hall Music, was only released in Sweden. And then, Peter Gabriel heard him and signed him, acclaiming him as a European Brian Wilson.

Listeners whose last exposure to Loney Dear was Loney, Noir will find themselves on unfamiliar ground. There is little left of the summery folk-pop stylings of that album, its breeziness long supplanted by a darker gravitas. (In a sense, Noir was an uncharacteristically sunny outlier among his albums, redolent more of unrequited infatuation and youthful anxiety than the heavier Strindbergian gloom that pervades his other works.) There is more continuity with the previous album, 2017’s Loney Dear; Lantern builds on it, but also pares back drastically, and moving towards terseness and restraint. All the songs are under five minutes, and the whole album is over in less than half an hour.

The album has had a long gestation, with Svanängen and his band playing the songs from it shortly after the previous album’s launch, in various versions: as nocturnal cityscapes of frostily pulsating electronics in a basement in Dalston, and on grand piano and bowed vibraphone in an old church in Stockholm a year later. By the time the album was committed to record, the songs had solidified closer to the latter form, driven primarily by piano, also played by Svanängen, with other instruments subtly in the background. The album was borne from struggle – the struggle against the introspective perfectionism of Loney Dear’s previous records (which Svanängen terms “collage records”, in comparison), a cathartic cutting away of complexity, and also a personal struggle against a state of despair, which comes through in the music. (Svanängen sums up the album as “a story about losing your temper”.)

The opening track, ‘Mute (All things pass)’, sets the tone: a thin chime, an unidentifiable crescendo of electronic noise suddenly cutting back to silence, leaving only minor-key piano chords and Svanängen’s voice, singing in falsetto of nocturnal journeys and mighty ships with the vital desperation of a man pleading with the indifferent universe. The song builds from this, the electronics subtly weaving in, and the harmony opening up, to what is not quite a chorus. The lyrics end on a note of plaintive resignation, with a crescendo of keyboards and electronics continuing where they leave off. The effect is reminiscent of Dear John’s ‘Under A Silent Sea’, though where that continued on for a few minutes and bloomed into a despondent rave banger of sorts, ‘Mute’’s crescendo erupts and fades into the darkness like an exhausted oil lantern, the whole song being over in three and a half minutes. The effect is uneasy – even somewhat Lynchian – and sets the scene for the rest of the album.

The gloom lifts somewhat on the second track, ‘Habibi (a clear black line)’, a song which steps away from inward psychodrama to broach the state of the world, in particular the plight of refugees, crossing oceans in boats with no name to be met by at best cold indifference. It is beautifully done, and while starting like a charity single, soon takes some unexpected left turns. ‘Trifles’ returns to the familiar shadows, starting with minor-key piano and falsetto vocals and gradually expanding into a crescendo, the lyrics painting an impressionistic picture of some nonspecific estrangement (Loney Dear’s phrasing in English, in ways a native songwriter might not, lends a sense of enigmatic alienation to his songs). The production here is subtly elaborate, with subtle layered electronics and effects adding shading. As a piece of music, it could soundtrack a montage sequence from a Scandinavian police procedural: when the drums (a slow kick and snare, smothered in reverb) come in after the bridge, the images float unbidden into the listener’s mind: crime-scene tape, detectives grimly surveying the aftermath, a figure in the shadows.

‘Go Easy On Me Now (Sirens – Emergencies)’ is almost a soul song, or perhaps a spiritual, driven by a piano figure reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and freighted with yearning for some form of transcendence or perhaps redemption. The brief ‘Last Night (Centurial Procedures)’ is as close as this album gets to a ballad. Its scant minute-and-a-half is followed by ‘Oppenheimer’, lamenting the terrible devastation of nuclear weapons, its fragile vocals and minor-key piano underpinned with electronic chatter and carefully placed glitches. The penultimate song, ‘Interval (Repeat)’, is the strongest point of the album, a beautifully bleak yet majestically sweeping portrait of resignation, recollecting old regrets and mourning losses, Svanängen’s voice recalling a description of the German singer Nico’s as “like a body thrown from a window”. The version on the album is again a brief three minutes, ending with an almost post-rocky coda. I am reminded of the ending of a bleak Icelandic film, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s Angels Of The Universe; there is a palpable absence of hope in it, and paradoxically a sense of some shadow of closure, or perhaps merely foreclosure.

The album ends with ‘A House And A Fire’, a paradoxically upbeat yet nihilistic meditation on loss (“did I leave a lit candle on purpose, tempting fate to make it go away”), itself building to the closest thing Lantern has to a catchy pop chorus. Were this one of Loney Dear’s earlier albums, this is the sort of song that would pick up momentum as it went along, gaining an instrument in the second verse, and barrelling through the final chorus to a euphoric crescendo, replete with vocal ad libs, belying its melancholic themes (eg, ‘Carrying A Stone’ from Loney Noir, or ‘Violent’ from Dear John). However, 2021-vintage Loney Dear swerves this temptation, keeping its chorus (“no-one’s gonna carry your sorrow”; it sounds more cheerful sung) at a boreal chill, aided by some backing electronics that would not sound amiss on a Sigur Rós deep-cut, before dropping the listener back into their life with more questions than answers. Closing out the album, ‘A House’ also acts as a manifesto of sorts for A Lantern and a Bell; in konmari-ing his usual layered compositions down to their bare bones, perhaps Svanängen was taking an unattended candle to the clutter of his creative practice?

To listen to A Lantern and a Bell is to peer through a window, from the cold street outside into a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room; to be aware of warmth and its absence. If I had one criticism, it would be that perhaps Loney Dear has cut too much. In places, when compared to their earlier works, it sometimes feels like songs don’t get the space to grow and unfold. Other than that, this is a sublime and beguiling record, and a milestone in the evolution of a unique creative voice.