If there is one thing that good people of Scandinavia have mastered to an almost elemental degree, it’s the ability to mix the dark and the light, ecstasy and misery in one seamless, reality-embracing package.
In the case of ceo, the moniker used by Eric Burglund, one time member of Swedish duo The Tough Alliance, and his new album, Wonderland (the follow up to 2010’s first solo effort White Magic), it’s the way he is able to hold the fun, frivolity and bright lights of the fun fair with the melancholy longing and anxiety of the fringe dwellers loitering just in the shadows.
This holistic approach to making pop grants the music he and his compatriots create an elevated sense of purpose and intelligence without getting bogged down in Sartre-like existential philosophising.
It means they can explore some very dark territory indeed, and still bring everyone along with them, their deep, dark thoughts on life and love all wrapped up in a giddily-coloured pretty bow, held aloft by a white rabbit who is both leader of the dance, and master of the angst.
The perfectly balanced blending of chaotic, ecstatic musical joy and the darker, unsettling thematic underbelly is evident form the word go on opening track “Whorehouse” which murmurs about opening Pandora’s box in a voice filled with fearful longing even as the song begins a jittery, upbeat synth-infused dash that suggests a happy headlong rush to get to Alice’s primary-coloured promised land.
But when you push past the opening dance-filled electronic melodies and the hands in the air chorus, and listen carefully, you’ll hear a plaintive cry for help, an admission that “Baby, I’m so lost inside the whorehouse”, which in the accompanying video is accompanied by frantic images and the scrawling of the word “bitch” across the screen in multi-coloured crayon letters.
To confuse the emotional mix even further, the song is punctuated by distorted yet still very child-like vocal outbursts, a melding of the innocent and the scarred that suggests someone way in over their head and unsure of the way out.
And yet for all that you are compelled to dance, the seriousness of the cries within, the pleading and the pain, reaching you and being absorbed far more readily than if he had bathed these sentiments of confusion and fright in far more sombre musical clothes.
Title track “Wonderland” dwells in much the same dual headspace, it’s thumping nursery rhyme cadence and soaring, church choir-like background vocals masking a one way trip to wonderland, a journey without a return ticket or undoing should it not prove to be as fulfilling a place to dwell as it first appears to be.
ceo sings of “let’s let go, let’s ride low / home to wonder-wonderland. and don’t you cop out ‘coz there’s no return / I’ll hold you as the dreams give in and bridges burn”, the pace of this non-stop flight to a magical land fraught with all manner of hard finishes:
“go on repeat those black lies ’til they become true. cold sweat, pirouttes / all the swans flew / so when you smash into the mirror what you gon’ do? / what you gon’ do? will it dawn on you? what you gon’ do?”
It has all the giddy joy of the Mad Hatter’s finest tea party, everyone arrayed in their party finest and “Gucci shoes”, caught in a happy endless moment … and yet there is the certainty that piper will come a-callin’ and there is a price to pay for all the pretty debauchery and mindless fun.
It’s a mixing of everything we all feel when we’re lost in the throes of ecstasy – carefree giving into urges, bliss and reverie and yet the deep down sense that this, like everything else, must end.
And yet not once does the bright circus-like music slow down a beat, the pace only moderating in the more meditative environs of the next track “Juju”, which is all sweet humming, and candle-lit peace, a marked contrast to “Wonderland”, and the skitterish “Ultrakaos” which follows it.
Wonderland is that perfectly realised, consistently pleasing distillation of life in musical form, the bringing together of the high points and low points, the brash rushing forth and the fearful hanging back, the soaring and the crashing to earth.
And yet for all its brutally honest lyrical outpouring, it’s a masterclass in the time-proven “spoonful of sugar” technique of using a pure, unadulterated melody to deliver possibly otherwise unpalatable messages about the realities that confront us everyday and which we spend a good deal of time distracting ourselves from facing.
Fortunately ceo, who recorded the album alone in the isolating wilds of the Swedish countryside, has done all the philosophical heavy lifting for you, coating it all the sugary, synth-washed wonder of his musical trip down the upbeat rabbit hole, a very pleasing journey indeed for those inclined to take it.