In pouty Swedish vocalist Lykke Li’s latest video for “I Follow Rivers,” a hirsute man wanders determinedly across a barren plain, half-desert, half-tundra. Li, shrouded in complete quasi-burqa, trails him frantically, at one point tossing off her platforms so that she may chase him faster, bare feet against the snow be damned. On one hand, it’s a bit reminiscent of the recent film The Way Back, wherein a group of gulag escapees trudges across Siberia to freedom (in three extremely long theater-hours). On the other, though, it’s a study in masochism, a snapshot of the great lengths average humans will go to for love or the idea of it. For her tenacity, Li is rewarded with a tentative kiss, but meets it with the look of someone who knows she’s about to lose it. Her voice, normally light-pitched and precious, has a cynical resonance to it in this song; she milking the alto over a tambourine hit, conjuring the darker parts of old Ronnie Spector songs. The sky is dim, foreboding. Cut to a scene of the ocean.
Li’s latest, super-subtly titled Wounded Rhymes (out March 1), is a break-up record, in the same way that it’s a record about a woman struggling against the misogynist vagaries of the industry. The darkness in the early singles certainly come from her own restlessness — one of the qualities in her that’s galvanized her fans, from die-hard music nerds to the fashion people who book her for gigs (sidebar: the last time I saw Li live, she was DJing an in-store in the Meatpacking during Fashion’s Night Out, aka the Manhattan County Fair).
But there’s a cultural imperative at work, too — a Swedish sense of brooding that betrays some outsiders’ concept of the country. As Magnus Betner, Swedish comedian, told the Telegraph last year, “Part of Sweden’s problem overseas is that everyone thinks we’re like Abba and Ikea.” The statement was in the context of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (haven’t seen it, but that New Yorker jam on Steig Larsson was great), but the Abba aside was telling: While visions of POÄNG chairs might populate your imagination (and your apartment), the general grey moodiness filters into music in ways you might miss. Think, for instance, of Ace of Base, arguably the country’s cheeriest export after ABBA. You think their tin synth cowbells were all rainbows and kittens? Check the lyrics to “All That She Wants,” which everyone presumes to be a bubblegummy declaration of joy, but is actually about a woman who sleeps around to fill the void.
A few weeks ago, I met up with Gothenburg-based art-pop band Little Dragon at the little hotel where they were staying over on Rivington. The air was frigid, and the counter-melody from “Sta Upp,” from their forthcoming third album Ritual Union, was lodged in my brain. It’s a triad chord that sounds like it was played on the metallic marimba setting on an old synthesizer, and it butts up against itself uncomfortably, nearly dissonant but still pretty enough to be a great hook. On a bed of midtempo drums, it sets itself up for singer Yukimi Nagano’s glimmery, jazz-and-Badu-leaning mini-warbles. Flying like a heroine to the moon. Soundwise, it’s an embodiment of the off-kilter broodiness Betner spoofs, and of the cognitive dissonance you can mine in the most commonly karaoke’d tracks by Ace of Base. Drummer Erik Bodin explains it thusly: “The darkness, the moodiness. That’s Gothenburg business. The whole church culture of it, too — it’s still [based in] the idea that you shouldn’t stick out, that you shouldn’t be somebody special,” he says. The socialist imperative, perhaps. But the band is named after Nagano’s bouts of anger in the studio, and Little Dragon works both around and within its formative culture, writing sweet, baubly songs that play around with form, yet performing very subdued, even sedate live shows that are often so controlled it overshadows the simple beauty of their music. “I don’t know what brought that moodiness out,” says Nagano, “But I think it’s maybe the history — it has to do with the climate, people having to live in this darkness on potatoes and meat and spirits.”
Fellow Gothenburg band jj couches its moods in a more typically maudlin package, wrapping shoe-shuffling pop melodies in precocious delicacy like towheaded basement Enyas. Beyond their propensity for covers and proclivity for rap — they first became known for a twinkly cover of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” — the duo often follows a template that feels vaguely more British than Nordic. Specifically, the ghosts of C64 bands haunt their songs, which aren’t teenagery enough to be annoyingly twee, but still have the toe-tippiness of people who are crushed-out, depressed about it, yet cannot figure out why. The sun sets early in the winter months, and the melancholy is pervasive, but when we register the sonic cues of sadness — mushmouthed vocals, minor keys — it tends not to be as shocking or thought-provoking as when malcontent shares a bed with a bright hook. You can take it from Ace of Base, but for a less obvious example, there’s jj’s labelmate ceo (aka Eric Berglund, who has a similar beef with capital letters), who dresses up his anxiety in heart-bursting, pom-pom squad-ready chords, as on ‘Illuminati’s modernist identity crisis. Berglund’s an alumni of Swedish music scene heros The Tough Alliance (TTA to the devoted), and in the bad-vibes-cloaked-in-good-times genre, he’s an old pro; that band may have come up with the most infectuous Swedish pop since ABBA, but notoriously played shows that came off more like violent performance art, lip-syncing to their own songs while swinging baseball bats and antagonizing their audience. Riots, the legend goes, ensued. And maybe that’s the purest expression of the dark thread influencing pop culture in their home country — jubilant violence representing the disconnect of a wealthy, balanced society with an undercurrent of unspoken depression. As Nagano says, ‘We definitely have the darkness. We can feel that when we’re in America, when we’re making jokes. You say something very seriously that sounds harsh and people will really believe you. You have to say no, I’m just joking. It was a joke.”