When I received my first set of albums to review for Hybrid last
fall, Swedish singer-songwriter and former Edson frontman
Pelle Carlberg's solo debut - Everything. Now! -
was among them. I had no idea what to make of it at the time.
The songs had unusual titles like "Musikbyrån Makes
Me Wanna Smoke Crack" and "How I Broke My Foot And Met
Jesus." The cover photograph was a dark, ambiguous photo
of a stoic and conservatively dressed Carlberg in front of velvet
curtains and under an overhead light that might belong in an interrogation
room. Underneath, though, was one of the most brilliant albums
I've heard in recent years. If it had been released in 2006, it
may have challenged Regina Spektor's Begin To Hope
for the top spot on my year-end top ten list.
On Everything. Now!, Carlberg proved he has everything
I value in a singer-songwriter. The record is quiet and unassuming,
like an intimate conversation with a friend. The songs are effortless
and sincere - imagine the unpretentious honesty of Jonathan
Richman filtered through the cynicism of The Smiths,
rich with a sharp wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Carlberg's
wounded, fragile voice isn't the most varied instrument, but he
is one of the rare vocalists able to express exactly what he is
feeling, directly and unaffectedly, with his voice.
Considering the praise I lavished on Everything. Now!,
my expectations were high for Carlberg's follow-up, In A Nutshell,
released earlier this year. I was skeptical of any songwriter's
ability to equal a record as great as Everything. Now!,
but I did expect to be impressed. So, does the new record measure
up to that masterpiece? That depends. Although a few individual
songs fall short of the previous album's standards, the record
is just as powerful and evocative as its predecessor.
In A Nutshell also avoids the pitfall of recreating the
sound of Everything. Now!. In fact, it is further from
a carbon copy as I could have imagined. Both records are often
self-deprecating, bitter, and sorrowful, but there is a more lighthearted
sheen on In A Nutshell - Carlberg is having more fun, cracking
more jokes, and writing melodies that are even stronger those
on Everything. Now!. Underneath the differences, though,
the core of each album is the same. Artists like Carlberg can
vary their approach, but they can't vary the heart-on-their-sleeve
convictions that make their songs great.
In A Nutshell begins with the soaring, elaborately produced
"Pamplona." Despite the choir and orchestral backdrop,
the song is as plaintive and honest as anything else on the record.
With lyrics like "
got my headphones on / And I don't
feel so strong," there's no danger of the song become precious
or self-aware. The next song, "I Love You, You Imbecile,"
is a love song (of sorts) with lyrics like "All I want is
you / I can live with all the stupid things you do." Elsewhere,
Carlberg proves capable of expressing disarming heartache ("Why
Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow?") and reflecting
vividly on his childhood ("Middleclass Kid"). He also
tells the story of a disillusioning encounter with former Smiths
drummer Mike Joyce in "I Touched You At The Sound
Check." The most impressive track, bearing the lengthy title
"Clever Girls Like Clever Boys Much More Than Clever Boys
Like Clever Girls," is a marriage of witty lyrics and an
awe-inspiring, rapid-fire chorus that is the most melodic moment
on either In A Nutshell or Everything. Now!.
Carlberg is exactly the kind of singer-songwriter that I have
always appreciated, and is always needed - his music is the undiluted
expression of a person's view of the world. In A Nutshell,
just like Everything. Now!, is the work of an indispensable
songwriter. And, for what it's worth, Carlberg is the early favorite
to top my best-of list for 2007.
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