Much has been made about Gustav Ejstes’ voice. By necessity, those outside of Sweden and Finland (or at least those who don’t speak “Svenska”) will have no idea what he’s singing about and therefore must be treated as nothing more than an extra instrument. For all I know, it could be the usual pastiche of inconsequential chestnuts or it could be heartfelt reminisces or it could be instructions for building a bird feeder. That doesn’t matter. Culture clash alone dictates that this must be a mood record; I don’t give a damn what he’s saying. What matters is whether or not Ejstes’ throat is honeyed or hackneyed. In the case of 4, it actually depends on what he and the rest of the group are doing.
That’s right—I said “group.” Where Dungen was once more or less considered to be a one-man outfit (he had some minor assistance in the studio before, but it was virtually all his from thought to expression), now they are a full-fledged group. Ejstes is relegated to mostly singing and piano chiming; Reine Fiske, Mattias Gustavsson and Johan Holmegard take over other various duties. But it’s still Ejstes’ baby. Even if the other members offered forth musical ideas, it clearly came from familiarity in Ejstes’ method and style. But I still have to wonder if the group dynamic is the cause for the occasionally reckless way that this album unfolds. Did Ejstes get too much input? Did he spread himself too thin? Did he intend to craft such a sonically disjointed affair?
It begins so warm and evocative with “Satt Att Se,” a fluttering romp washed over with soul-wrenching rock bays, and flows into the calm instrumental, “Maleras Finest,” which opens up again with the idyllic and inviting “Det Ter Tid.” These early tracks are the stuff of smooth jazz and intimate summer pop, tinged with acid rock psychedelia. There’s bounce and verve to spare, but they’re so contented and soothingly melodic, that’s it’s tough to imagine them ever being performed live before a large crowd. Headphones, shadowy room, lazy reading, staring through a rain-streaked window—that’s where this music is most effective. It sounded like the empty echo of country fields nostalgia mixed with the soundtrack score of a mod-and-hippie-fringed flick from the end of the 60s. It wasn’t jaw-dropping, but I doubt anyone could easily resist it.
But then “Samtidigt 1” comes roaring out of the gates. It’s a burst of Hendrix-esque guitar pyrotechnics, all tortured fire and wailing. It’s a jarring experience to be so relaxed, so complacent, and then to get an earful of fuzzed-out hard rock, the instruments wrapping around each frazzled note and bending them back into shape. I love Jimi, but this is no place for it. Why was I torn awake from that dream and hurtled back into stark reality? To build to a strident moment like this is one thing, but to jolt the nerves so cruelly? It was like plunging into an ice water bath. At least we’re spared Ejstes’ soft whine vocals—they’d have sounded totally contradictory to this bad-acid freakout.
“Ingenting Ar Sig Likt” follows, introducing a lounge piano with a slow jazz swing. If not for the foreign tongue, it would feel right at home on Costello’s Imperial Bedroom. And so again we seep into a reflective, interior space of mind. “Fredag” continues in that tradition, but builds on the low-key charm. The momentum rises and the drums cascade, climaxing twice with howling electric guitars. Now this is the way to interrupt the bliss—have it come on slowly, even deceptively, instead of slapping us across the face.
“Finns Det Nagon Mojlighet” begins with screeching feedback; it’s slightly less abrasive than “Samtidigt 1”’s entrance, but still an unwelcome presence. Its uselessness is magnified by the fact that the rest of track is driven by trilling flutes, a low-key piano and drum fills, a sort of frolicsome rhythm that bands like the Zombies perfected. Later, the scorch guitar will return, but even while still unsettling, it comes from a more natural spring of consciousness: passages of sinister dread that fall over the pastoral pomp. And on “Samtidigt 2,” we find the guitar doing another noisy workout, but this time accompanied by be-bop pianos and looping melodies, keeping everything in check.
To complain about track order and stylistic diversions may seem to scoff at eclecticism, but there’s a key difference between 4 and, say, Imperial Bedroom. Mr. Costello wrote songs, easily defined and digested nuggets. Dungen, on the other hand, is preoccupied with sounds and textures and atmospheres. As a composer of music, Ejstes is clearly quite talented; as a songwriter, he’s either not really trying or not really understanding. I didn’t even dislike “Samtidigt 1,” but it didn’t belong on this album and certainly not on the mostly unfussy and temperate first half. That naked acid rock nightmare was completely out of place. Opener, “Satt Att Se,” also had a searing, redolent guitar smoke-out, but every instrument spoke together, including Ejstes himself. It was smooth like an electric organ, not chainsaw distortion; beautiful sorrow, so to speak. Adventures like these should either be self-contained slices or rise logically from the current musical direction. And since 4 isn’t a song-driven album, what was likely intended to be unpredictable is actually just unfortunate.
As for the Ejstes voice, it works fine in conjunction with the more laid-back tracks, a harmonious hum that is effective even when the tone rings a bit flat. It’s reminiscent in a lot of ways of Gruff Rhys’ Mwng warbling, and not just because Welsh might as well be Swedish to my ears. And it thankfully rarely appears on the noisier album moments. In fact, his voice only rings on about half of the tracks, further notifying us that 4 is a complete album, focused on mood, feel and vibe, and should be judged thusly. Therefore, 4 is often mesmerizing and sometimes frustrating. Flaws and all, it should be heard, and even if I can’t understand anything Ejstes is saying, the music speaks for him better than any couplet could. I suppose 4 says he’s confused, ambitious and prone to mood swings. He certainly wouldn’t be the first musician to be so.
Note: Since I didn’t know what a single syllable meant, I have simply shrugged and given the lyrics a score of 5, which had no effect on my final assessment.
"4" is on sale September 30, 2008 from Kemado.