DAIS Records (DAIS110), 2018
A new Tor Lundvall album is always an intriguing mystery. His discography runs the gamut from instrumental ambient to vocal synthpop to a combination of the two, but the albums slip between the conventions of genre – a fine fit, considering the shadowed and ghostly template that pervades the music. There has always been something compellingly uncertain about Lundvall’s music; a large part of the listening attraction, as the listener is presented a landscape in which to roam, free to discover secrets and details present only in her or his head.
When word emerged that Lundvall’s new album would mark a return to his vocal style, I’m betting eyebrows were raised. I know mine were. Not in a disappointing way, mind you, but as it had been nine years since the last album in this format, Sleeping and Hiding, the news was a surprise, especially considering that Lundvall had entered new territories of his trademark spectral-minimalist instrumental ambient. I must also confess that I have always preferred Lundvall’s music to his vocals, with the exception of the sublime Yule EP, so when A Dark Place arrived, I approached it with the slightest edge of hesitation.
My concerns quickly evaporated. A Dark Place is not only the best of Lundvall’s vocal work, it is the most emotional music he’s ever produced, and it is a refined display of his amorphous ambient style. In describing the album, Lundvall says:
Finding the words to describe this album is almost as difficult as the past couple of years. There is a lot of pain, fear and sadness wrapped into these eight songs. More so than usual, I think. The loss of my father in 2015 and coping with his absence certainly hangs heavily here.
This is a welcome insight, especially considering Lundvall’s traditionally reclusive nature, and it sets the mood for what is to come.
Lundvall’s lyrics have taken on a new sophistication. They are delivered in rhyming couplets drenched in reverb, and are given ample space by the music. Lundvall’s high voice follows delicate melodies with confident ease; he has never sounded this comfortable. As Lundvall is also a practiced painter, there’s a stark visual quality to his minimal poetry, often using motifs of color and light. However, there’s an added layer to A Dark Place: it appears that in some cases, the words are spoken by one who has lost someone dear, while in others, the spirit itself is the one mourning. The split nature of the ghostly face gracing the album’s cover – Lundvall always creates the art for his albums, and sometimes his paintings influence his music – seems to support such a duality. Whether the face is half Lundvall and half Lundvall’s departed father is open to interpretation, but this two-sided theme is strongly apparent throughout A Dark Place.
Compared to Lundvall’s ambient-leaning work (Empty City, The Shipyard), A Dark Place is much more structured. An unobtrusive beat sets the tempo, plodding away thoughtfully, and Lundvall surrounds it with the vaporous synth washes and odd bits of samples that have always defined his music. The music is more focused and grounded, as it is the foundation for the vocals, but it’s immediately obvious that A Dark Place owes a great deal to the recent albums The Park, The Violet-Blue House, and Rain Studies. The same hazy sense of place and half-lit atmosphere is present, but Lundvall builds on these tropes with electric guitar – a surprise that is included thoughtfully and naturally – and an increased but gentle presence of processed noise (most prevalent on “The Moment”). From the perfectly paced bassline, crackling static, and synth tones of “Negative Moon” to the open pastoral night-space of “Haunted By The Sky”, Lundvall’s music is as evocative as ever.
A Dark Place belies its title. Even when Lundvall sings about “pale fingers sharp as knives”, the music never revels in its darkness, always reaching out from the shadows. Lundvall’s music has been called cold and impersonal in the past, but these critiques cannot be applied to this graceful album. Structurally, it’s a culmination of what has given Lundvall’s music its unique sound; it acknowledges the past while remaining experimental, and has found an ideal balance between music and voice. The poignant longing of “The Next World” would seem to be voiced by both the living and the dead; it’s a celebration of life from the perspective of what comes after, and I’d argue it’s the most touching song Lundvall has ever written. The track is a fitting closure to what is, ultimately, as moving a portrait of loss as we’re ever likely to hear. A Dark Place is a reminder that there cannot be dark without light, and Lundvall has crafted a guide for acceptance.