Loney dear: A Lantern And A Bell
LP | CD | DL
Released 26 March 2021
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Loney dear’s latest album is a minimalist classic, the highlight of which is the Swede’s unforgettable falsetto. Nine exquisite songs, every one a wonder to behold. Gordon Rutherford reviews for Louder Than War.
“When you’re isolating, what better than to be wrapped up in these beautiful imaginative constructions – the work of a master.” (Peter Gabriel)
Of course, the former Genesis frontman, acclaimed solo artist and champion of world music is bound to be biased, given that the subject of his quote is Loney dear’s new album, A Lantern And A Bell, which just happens to be released on his Real World label. So, don’t take his word for it – take mine. This album genuinely is a collection of quite exquisite songs that affects you a little more every single time you listen to them. Gabriel speaks the truth; this truly is the work of a master.
Loney dear, the alias of Stockholm’s Emil Svanängen, has described his previous albums (there are eight) as “collage records”, collections with everything but the kitchen sink chucked at them in his endeavours to create perfection. Ironically, on his ninth album, A Lantern And A Bell, he has found his nirvana by simplifying everything. He entered the studio accompanied only by producer Emanuel Lundgren and the absolute essential components required to fashion this album. It is a body of work that is minimalism personified, songs stripped back to their barest form, featuring only Svanängen’s lush falsetto that will stop you dead in your tracks, his heavenly piano, a discreet double bass and the burble of diffused water.
Water. It governs everything on A Lantern And A Bell. Whilst this is not a concept album, the sea is a distinct theme that recurs – both overtly and subliminally – throughout. Look at the album title and the cover art (the emblem for a vessel in distress) for starters. Of course, if you are familiar with the work of Loney dear you will already be aware that he has something of an obsession with all things nautical.
It’s unsurprising that the cruel sea should have such an influence. Svanängan lives by the sea. All day, every day, he is exposed to the sound of freighters and trawlers, seabirds and lapping waves. Furthermore, the album was recorded in a remote studio on Stockholm’s Södermalm peninsula, surrounded by water. The sea is omnipresent. Lyrically, Svanängen brings his environment to life even in the first few bars as he sings “mighty ships, hung overground”. I’ve already mentioned the subtle sonic interweaving into the music of the diffused sounds of water, recorded from incalculable depths. These influences all aggregate in such a way that when you listen to these songs your mind paints pictures of secluded shorelines and seas the colour of gunmetal ebbing under wan skies.
Indeed, Svanängen even has the look of a nineteenth-century seafarer with that lustrous beard. Physically, he bears a strong resemblance to John Grant and the comparison doesn’t end with his appearance. Like Grant, Svanängen is a gifted songwriter, capable of crafting the most intelligent and beautifully hewn tunes. On A Lantern And A Bell, he offers up a suite of songs that are utterly compelling. It seems simple on the surface, this collection of three-minute songs with an elegant, baroque feel and an unfussiness that you might expect from one man, his sublime falsetto and a piano. But, just like the depths of the Baltic Sea, there is a powerful undertow. It is virtually impossible to decouple Loney dear’s music from his personal life. He confesses that A Lantern And A Bell comes on the back of a period when he was in “a really bad place, a state of despair”. He goes on to describe the album as “a story about losing your temper”. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, despite the airiness of much of the music, when you dig deeper you get a different vibe altogether. His lyrics are as weighty and dark as the deepest trench in the ocean. There are songs about immigrants traversing unforgiving waters (Habibi) and our unerring ability to harm one another (Oppenheimer). That contrast, the exquisite song construction set against such stark lyricism, is remarkable. Every time I listen to this album I am reminded of Douglas Dare’s brilliant album from last year, Milkteeth. So many similarities.
A Lantern And A Bell is an album of nine songs and, in totality, it clocks in a very economical twenty-seven minutes and forty-five seconds. That’s succinct, however the quality never wanes, not a second is wasted on anything superfluous. If anything, it feels too short. By the time the final track, A House And A Fire, ends, you desperately want to hear more. The most striking aspect amidst those precious minutes is that voice. It is a porcelain-like falsetto, akin to a freighter carrying an unfathomable cargo of sorrow. It is a sound that hits you like an iceberg in the first ten seconds of the opening track, Mute – All Things Pass. As organs swell towards the end of the track, you hear him take sharp intakes of breath and you realise that you are doing precisely the same thing. It’s an incredibly powerful beginning, one which brings a realisation that Svanängen’s voice is going to hold you transfixed throughout this album.
Musically, Svanängen has an incredible ability as a songwriter to astound you with the sheer unpredictability of his songs. He frequently eschews conventional chord progressions and obvious next steps in favour of continual surprises. It seems like every melody takes a left turn, not going where you think it will, but, instead, thrilling and delighting you with the path it’s taking. An outstanding example of this is the wonderful Trifles, which, as an added bonus, brings a soaring, uplifting conclusion. The heartbreaking Oppenheimer is another breathtaking example of his songwriting genius. Such variability serves to hold you enrapt right the way through.
Whilst it’s half a world away, geographically speaking, some of the songs have a kind of Laurel Canyon circa ’71 sensibility in their simplicity, elegance and structure. Habibi, with its transcendent couplets, is one example; Last Night – Centurial Procedures is another. As alluded to earlier, there is not a bad moment on A Lantern And A Bell. However, if I were to pick out one stand-out song it would have to be the album’s longest track, Go Easy On Me Now. This is a stunning, stripped back composition built upon a gorgeous descending arpeggio that is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Svanängen’s stunning falsetto surfs atop. The sheer anguish in his voice as he pleadingly sings “emergencies, I don’t know what to do” is devastatingly impactful.
A Lantern And A Bell is a marvellous album. Just like the vast oceans that play such a role in influencing the work of Loney dear, it is complex and unpredictable. It is a collection that is awash with contradictions – calm and peaceful on the surface whilst volatile and opaque currents swirl underneath. Nine songs, beautifully constructed, expertly performed and written from the heart, with the messages delivered by the voice of an angel. As Peter Gabriel proclaims, it is the work of a master. My only criticism is that it ends too soon.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.