Just a few years ago, the term Swedish pop was more or less synonymous with the 1960s: chipper hooks, throwback arrangements, turtlenecks, and soft-focus album covers. But in a very short time, the country's indie output-- at least as perceived from these shores-- seems to have advanced two decades, with acts like the Legends and Pacific! finding inspiration in the sounds of the early 1980s. In this regard, Jonathan Johansson is a new romantic, but not necessarily a New Romantic.
He doesn't dress outlandishly or portray himself as particularly androgynous, but that label (those two words divorced of their pop-historical meaning) nicely sum up the bruised emotionalism and chilly synthcraft of his Swedish-language debut, En hand i himlen (which translates roughly to "A Hand in Heaven"). On these ten songs, he sounds resolutely downcast, but with a stubborn optimism only a true romantic could feel, with his heart on his sleeve and heavy thoughts on his mind. In reviving these old sounds, Johansson locates a compelling paradox: His music communicates emotions so acute they can be conveyed only with the most coldly mechanistic instruments available.
Johansson and multi-instrumentalist Johan Eckeborn erect an enormous wall of electronic sound on En hand i himlen, with each song demonstrating new tricks. The title track is densely layered around an "and" beat snare pattern, building into soaring choruses and fading away into softer verses. Corkscrew synths etch a delicate melody throughout the downcast "Innan vi faller", whose mopiness is offset by its graceful segue into the relatively upbeat "H?gsta taket, h?gsta v?ningen". Johansson and Eckeborn create different textures and tones from their machines, but track to track there is an ebb and flow that makes En hand i himlen play seamlessly. "Sent f?r oss", pushed along by a frantic bass rhythm, charges along at a fast clip into the stark "Du sa", which sounds austere but not antiseptic. With a sprinting drumbeat that threatens to leave the performers behind, "S?g vad ni vill" provides the album's climax and an opportunity for Johansson to show off his surprisingly agile voice, which moves effortlessly from wounded to triumphant, from a low whisper to a falsetto that almost sounds indistinguishable from the synths themselves.
One song obviously stands out, although its title gives few clues. "Alla vill ha hela v?rlden" translates to "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", and yes, it's a Tears for Fears cover. Johansson doesn't mess with the original much beyond singing in Swedish-- this isn't a Gary Jules-style makeover-- and while the choice may be obvious, the song fits well enough on the album, finding a balance between defiant and resigned, between introverted and extroverted. Johansson may be playing off certain early 80s styles and signifiers on En hand i himlen, but on this impressive debut, he never sounds merely imitative. Instead, he cribs from that decade only to suit his own emotional, expressive ends.