Other than being Swedish musicians, what do Abba, Robin Stjernberg, and The Knife have in common? Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, Robin Sternbjerg, to these ears at least, has barely any chance of winning it in 2013 and Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, the siblings behind The Knife, would probably rather jam a piece of cutlery in their ears before even acknowledging the Eurovision.
But they’re all destined to be at least a footnote (hi there, Mr. Stjernberg) in the history of Swedish music. They’re also all in the news at the moment – Abba for the opening of their Stockholm museum, The Knife for the release of their long-awaited fourth album Shaking The Habitual, and Stjernberg for his presence in May’s Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö.
For better or worse (Mr. Stjernberg, we must stop meeting like this), they are all part of one of the world’s most extraordinarily successful local music industries, and they are all, whether they like it or not, inextricably linked. Stjernberg could not exist without The Knife and The Knife could not exist without Abba.
Abba set the tone – they took the music of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, blended it with a big dollop of the new harmony-laden folk music pioneered by the American group, The Kingston Trio, and came up with something so special, so incredible, they became the biggest band in the world. If someone ever tells you that Abba were ‘just pop music’ remind them that they made music that nobody had ever heard before. Even now, their sound is so utterly identifiable you could probably hear a long-forgotten early seventies b-side and immediately identify it as being by Abba. That is the mark of a great band.
IN PICTURES: Abba throughout the years
So too with The Knife. The blend of Karin’s husky-child voice and Olof’s off-kilter synth lines is not easily mistaken for anyone else. But The Knife have so far fallen short of true greatness. Why? Because Shaking The Habitual has underlined their distrust of pop music. Their last album, Silent Shout, was a masterpiece of deranged pop – one listen to the title track confirmed that here was a singular and brilliant band at work.
However, the new album has seen them take a step back into the dreary, unadventurous thicket of “experimental” music. Any old fool can fall asleep face down on their Roland synth, record the result and claim to be pushing boundaries. Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized, the laughable seventh track on their new album, could easily be a 20 minute recording of a malfunctioning air conditioning system. It’s insulting. Adventurousness in pop is only ever really worthwhile when it comes wrapped in a melody. It’s much harder to break free of constraints over 3 minutes than it is over 20. And nobody will ever listen to the 20 minute track. It’s creative cowardice.
However, Swedish pop music would be much the poorer without The Knife’s huge influence. Artists such as Robyn, Niki and The Dove, and Kate Boy owe them a debt. So too do less interesting pop acts (Robin! How lovely to see you again!), who have co-opted The Knife’s off-balance chorus structures and skronky keyboards, toned them down, and nailed drab songs to the flimsy frame in the wild hope they can win a song contest. It’s a forlorn dream, of course. But it still demonstrates that Swedish pop needs its mavericks as much as its masters. And they all feed off one another.
May’s Album of the month
Whatever the many faults of their fourth album, Shaking The Habitual, you can’t escape the influence of The Knife this month. Argentine-born Swede Jose Gonzalez had his breakthrough hit with a gentle, whispery cover of The Knife’s Heartbeats, but his work with Junip has always been more interesting than his Nick Drake-obsessed solo career.
His bandmates in Junip, Tobias Winterkorn and Elias Araya, add grit and substance to Gonzalez’s often beautiful but occasionally insipid songs. Line Of Fire, the lead song on this, Junip’s second album, would have doubtless sounded lovely with just Gonzalez on his acoustic guitar – the melody is swollen with hope and beauty – but Winterkorn and Araya bring drive and power to bear on a song that is transformed from ‘pretty’ to ‘stunning’. Good heavens, you might even attempt to dance to it.
On Villain, Junip even get scuzzy, with a low-slung bass buzzing away and drums being belted – it’s quite a surprise. The success of this very satisfying album, does however lie ultimately with Gonzalez’s songwriting. Winterkorn and Araya can huff and puff as much as they like but without songs as good as After All Is Said And Done, Suddenly, and So Clear, their efforts wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. With great material, however, all three shine brightly.
Artist: The Knife
Album: Shaking The Habitual
Yes, it’s mostly nonsense but there are two great songs on here, Full Of Fire and A Tooth For An Eye. Not a great strike rate but still worth investigating. As an aside, they’re also touring Sweden this month.
Artist: Håkan Hellström
Album: Det Kommer Aldrig Va Over For Mig
Another terrific album from the hugely prolific maverick Swede.
IN PICTURES: Five things you didn’t know about Håkan Hellström
Album: Delirium Tremens
This is only an EP but this techno duo make stirring, propulsive stuff. Recommended.
May Gig of the Month
Artist: Miss Li
Date: May 9 & 10
Event: Berns Salonger
Venue: Berzelii Park 11147 Stockholm, 08 566 322 00
Miss Li (Linda Carlsson to her mum and dad) is a delightfully transgressive artist. Her odd mix of folk, polka and showtunes really shouldn’t work but there is a real intelligence at work and her live shows are always special.