How could Swedish multi-instrumentalist Martin Henrik Hasselgren have avoided a professional recording studio for so long? The results are a joy to behold on his sixth album Night Vision, adding depth to up his impressively lush sonic fireworks and offering newfound clarity to his achingly slow and quiet moments. And speaking of slow, if you want to hear a singer spin out lyrics at a truly glacial pace look no further than Giving Up The Ghost, where Hasselgren manages to make: “Walking home/ in a crooked line/ with blood on my back” last for a full 25 seconds.
But hey, it works. And it’s indicative of the emotional heartstrings that the Swede wants to pull with his listeners. The pace of the tracklisting offers the first glimpse of his mission as he deliberately keeps ears off-guard as he follows the superb Halos and its pummelling beats with the swimming-in-treacle approach of Our Treasure. It’s a trick that works once, maybe twice. But over the course of an album it makes you wish he’d just get on with it because the stronger songs are the heavier, faster and more upbeat ones.
Which brings us back to the tune Halos. It sits nicely as the centrepiece of the album and is its predictable single, exploding out of a brooding, repetitive synth line and ascending strings as Hasselgren gives it both barrels with his best Robert Smith-esque anthemic delivery: “The sky lit up/ a thunder clap/ swimming halos in the wind/ a tiny store of fireflies/ I was slowly passing by”. And he uses the studio trickery to full effect by layering the tune with plenty of strings, bass-heavy synths, jangling acoustic guitars, twinkling piano keys and vocal overdubs.
But the euphoria is interrupted by the aforementioned and wrist-slittingly slow Our Treasure. Immediately afterwards, it’s followed by the romping Trigger which explodes in full Technicolor glory with a walking synth line that could have come straight out of a Peter Sellers movie. Even the canned applause tacked on the end works before it segues into a lovely swirling haze of a sustained organ riff. And then it stops.
Yes, it’s that trick again. Stop. Start. Up. Down. Despite being a strong songwriter and a pretty good singer, Hasselgren relies on these jarring shifts of tempo to move the album along and provide contrast. But as equally melancholic artists such as Smith and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous proved you cannot force the music to tug at the heartstrings. All you need is a story to tell and to let the songs do the rest of the work. It’s clear, armed with a recording studio or not, that Hasselgren has the musical ideas. And when he fleshes them out lovingly and painstakingly with his full arsenal of tricks they touch on greatness. But the final battle is to try and develop a narrative linking his songs to weave the highs and lows into a more cohesive listen.
That said, he’s not far away. Just hear how Hasselgren slowly lets the bass guitar get more and more raw and rugged as the album progresses. By the time you arrive at the penultimate track New Year’s and its tale of a girl hanging herself in a Christmas tree in the centre of town, the bassline is stripped of any studio gloss as it propels the track into a raging, smouldering finale.