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“I have discovered a mind-blowing world of music that nobody seems to know about,” a pop manager of my acquaintance announced over his cell phone several years ago, running through LAX, “and it is named Sweden!” The long Backstreet/Britney/’N Sync moment had not even begun yet; this was during the mid ’90s, when Ace of Base seemed to zoom in from Saturn, and most people still wondered how Seattle grunge had popped itself up so fast into scrunge, and nobody outside the Latin world had heard of Ricky Martin. I began to think of Melony, the terrifically together Swedish rock band I’d just heard, ultimately a Minty Fresh licensing. Or the Cardigans, or, you know, being an amateur historian, ABBA. Then the guy sent me several Swedish CDs—not bands or singers per se, but producer reels where the music was mostly dance-rock with a curt Mutt Lange-influenced techno-accent. Stockholm, to be sure, seemed to boast a lot of recording studios and producers. But Sweden as mind-blowing world of undiscovered pop music? Come on.
Right now, as one hears what many commentators and bizzers pray may be the end of the long Backstreet/Britney/’N Sync moment, that still seems like the overwhelming attitude among Americans and Brits about the Stockholm teenpop mastered by Max Martin and Rami and their various one-name associates and peers. The attitude seems just as squirrelly and unpresent as the elusive Martin himself: Sweden? OK. You saw it a couple years ago on the Grammys, when the industry loved up Christina Aguilera, who didn’t work with the Swedes, comparatively ignoring Britney Spears, the far better artist, who did. But Andreas Johnson’s Liebling and Amanda’s Everybody Doesn’t, two absolutely first-rate pop records from Sweden now picked up and released here by majors, suggest that there may be more to Anglo-American indifference regarding the Swedes than merely America and Britain‘s twin arrogance as the respective minters and refiners of rock and roll: Sweden, quite possibly, is just too fucking sly, stylistically, for its own good.
Where France dotes on rhythmic nuttiness and objets retrouvés, Germany clings to systems, and Italy indulges an ariatic tenderness even when churning out thumping techno, Swedish pop seems too cool to include a nationalistic signature. Instead, it’s both more practical and conceptual: It looks calmly at what it sets out to do (boyband music that moves like hip-hop yet defines high-mall? no problem) and executes it beautifully and intelligently, as though the only difference between crafting a pop track of any given stripe and a new Saab were tangibility. Hence, Johnson’s Liebling—the 28-year-old singer and songwriter’s second album but first stateside release—begins with “Glorious,” an international hit and pure neo-new-wave heaven.
The song, in which Johnson sounds both fully enraptured and slightly taken aback as he figures out his romantic emotions, analyzes attention. “Now sheee-eeee-eeeee’s checking me out,” Johnson sings in a loosed falsetto, his voice otherwise all agile motion, scratchy truth, and old U2 posters, “making me glorious.” Johnson inhabits the track as though he were born to it, and it’s one hell of a modern rock dwelling, half chattering guitars and unfrilly synthbeats, ceilinged with a dark-purple cloud of a string arrangement fit for the Velcro gods. Elsewhere on Liebling (Swedish for “darling”), Johnson and Kvint, his excellent (one-name) producer-arranger, work Mick Hucknall soul (“Should Have Been Me”) and Chris Isaak country (“Patiently”) and Simple Minds art-pop (“Submerged”) into a compelling whole that never risks overextension. On “Do You Believe in Heaven”—a symphonic beat thing fascinated by the urban and the rural, worthy on both fronts of Björk—Johnson wonders to his girlfriend, “Will we ever find the goal we seek?”
The answer, at least in Stockholm record-making terms, seems more often yes than no, and that’s equally true of Everybody Doesn’t, the pop-dance debut of Amanda, a French-born teenage singer and songwriter who grew up in Sweden. Like Johnson and Kvint, Amanda and her producers—mostly from the Stockholm-based Murlyn Music “camp,” as her bio puts it, which features hit (one-name) producers like BAG & Arnthor—ace genre. But unlike on Liebling, Amanda’s romantic concerns aren’t anxiously toned to 3 a.m. angst or the fall of Rome; they’re light, lively, sparkly, and they sound like a couple million bucks. On the title song, Amanda, whose husky post-TLC voice has a lithe eyeliner loveliness to it, negotiates sex/no-sex in high-stepping boyfriend-girlfriend terms to her restless guy. But the track bops around, only accumulating heaviness, finally, in the end. On “Can’t Stop My Love” Amanda punches out eighth and 16th notes with her voice, achieving a truly fast-paced Michael Jacksonian élan, and BAG & Arnthor dial up the compression with some of Quincy Jones’s masterful settings. And the record keeps happening—you’re not quite the center of my world, Amanda tells some dude, in “You Don’t Stand a Chance,” but her warning sounds as grave as sunshine.
Johnson and Amanda are out to be big-time mass-market stars. The Champaign, Illinois, independent Parasol has lately been releasing smaller recordings by Swedish bohos like Club 8, Waltz for Debbie, Starlet, and others, as well as no fewer than three albums, currently, from rock godhead The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which they bill as “the world’s best band.” And it’s a given, at least for my ears, that earlier this year the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne-Sophie von Otter sang, with Elvis Costello producing on an album entitled “For the Stars,” the art-pop collection of a lifetime. So Stockholm, finally, for all its modesty, may well receive its moment. Sweden rules. OK?