“A Lantern and a Bell” sheds light on human behavior
The Swedish island of Södermalm in the Baltic Sea, surrounded by brackish water and centuries of Nordic history, is known as a hub of creativity and culture. In its latest product of artistic expression, the waves of the inland sea are lapping ostinato; its voyaging vessels a glacial falsetto that glides over the accompaniment to convey the mysterious draw of the sea.
Under the pseudonym Loney Dear, Emil Svanängen released his eighth album titled “A Lantern and a Bell” Friday, March 26. An indie, or independent, album, it combines traditional folk elements with modern electronica. Svanängen’s brittle voice, backed simply by a piano, laments our insignificance while also appreciating the beauty of the vast ocean.
The cries of seagulls and crashing waves opening the first song, “Mute / All things pass,” makes the nautical theme abundantly clear. “Mighty ships hung over ground,” Svanängen sings, “muted shapes with the worried birds.” The song seems to be directed at an omnipresent “he,” a personified version of the ocean as Svanängen compares the mortality of men to the infallibility of water with high, wounded vocals. “All things pass; I don’t know the way,” he sings. “I’d trade it all for him. He saves from the deepest wells with a thousand eyes.”
The next track, “Habibi (A clear black line),” further extends the musical development shown in “Mute / All things pass.” “Habibi” is the Arabic word for “my love,” and the piano solo that begins the song shows this theme. The simple and elegant melody is reflective of the Classical period, and its structure supports the song in a pleasing way. Along with this is a shift in person from an impartial “he” to a more intimate “you.” Svanängen gives the ocean an almost maternal role as he dedicates this song to “the poor and the weak ones, the happy or drunk.” Though some traveled in “boats with no names,” the ocean will “make you some room to make you feel at home.”
Other than the beautiful piano, “A Lantern and a Bell” is most distinguishable by Svanängen’s falsetto. Though its shivering fragility adds to the overall mood of the album, the occasional uncomfortably high tone makes it hard to differ between deliberate artistic choice and ineptitude. Maybe the acoustic voice-and-piano ballads are just too different from modern auto-tuned music, but there are many instances when Svanängen sounds out of tune, especially when he sings the first verse in “Habibi (A clear black line).” Despite intonation, however, Svanängen’s obvious musical talent and the increasing quality of production with each song on the album outweighs the negatives.
In “Trifles,” like the layered dessert, the song layers different subjects in each verse. As it progresses, positive words like “treasure” and “kindness” gradually give way to “grave” and “carcass.” This is also the first song that shows development of the theme because rather than the ocean itself, “Trifles” focuses on the ships that sail on the oceans and their passengers. Whereas water was established as the primary force in previous songs, “the tide is rising; loudly soaring.” Here is the first glimmer of agency Svanängen recognizes beyond an all-mighty power. The music, too, transitions into more dissonant harmonies until the end sees a crescendo with an angelic chorus.
However, the album quickly turns somber with “Oppenheimer,” a song named after the theoretical physicist credited with creating the nuclear bomb. Svanängen further recognizes the power of the ocean as he sings about testing the bombs on remote islands. Though the man-made weapons possess terrifying potential, “high is the tide that wash out the memories” show that nature is stronger still. The piano provides understandably darker accompaniment with Svanängen’s ethereal voice lending a tragic tone.
The despairing theme continues to the last track, “A House and a Fire.” Its lyrics present the strongest imagery in the album with despondent lines like “we breathe ashes when the memories burn” and “no one’s gonna carry your sorrows; you’re on your own.” The delicate, ascending melody frames the song until it slowly fades away with hollow reverb.
“A Lantern and a Bell” is a minimalistic album with simple music structure, but its emotions and messages are anything but. Svanängen’s rounded enunciation and falsetto makes his audience alternate between hope and despair as he uses the sea to symbolize a force greater than ourselves. Though Svanängen’s vocals sometimes falter, the imperfections only add to the sense of vulnerability that makes this album an artistic masterpiece.
By Cathy Li, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Real World Records