Thomas Dybdahl has been something of a star for some time in his native Norway. By way of contrast, he is a burgeoning word-of-mouth cult here in the UK, beloved of a certain cognoscenti but long denied widespread distribution or media attention. With the release of Songs, his first international album, all that could be about to change. Songs is a compilation of some of the highlights from his first four albums. The title track is sadly the sole selection from his most recent release, the extraordinary Waiting For That One Clear Moment, but the set does include more than ample evidence of Dybdahl’s distinctive qualities.
Dybdahl has a flighty, potentially extravagant voice sometimes reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, Thom Yorke or Rufus Wainwright. Those names are common enough reference points for singer-songwriters these days, and they often lead to a certain artistic cul-de-sac of forced emoting and unconvincing delivery. Dybdahl, however, has a singular restraint and control. His strong emphasis on vocal dynamic range is rare in this sort of context, as is his thoughtful, measured and balanced ensemble sound.
Many of these songs share careful, effective arrangements and an intelligent approach to instrumentation. Brushed drums are used as much for the textures they create as they are for marking time, whilst auxiliary percussion also greatly enhances the depth and feel of songs such as All’s Not Lost. Pedal steel guitar is another regular mood-enhancing feature. The beautiful, affecting Pale Green Eyes even begins with what sounds like a largely improvised vibraphone solo. How often is that heard in modern acoustic pop?
Perhaps best of all is the wistful, floaty ballad One Day You’ll Dance For Me, New York City, on which Dybdahl brilliantly displays his characteristic subtlety. The opening smoky saxophone introduction is another unexpected treat. The soft but nimble Something Real is fantastic too – about as delicate as an uptempo romp could possibly be, at least until the entirely surprising entry of some ragged freely improvised saxophone. By this point, however, listeners will no doubt have learned to expect some brilliantly incongruous flourishes. Here, the writing, performance and production are all equally ambitious and high minded.
Dybdahl’s major success in Norway is actually slightly surprising. These gentle, nuanced songs, many of them with intriguing chord changes and sophisticated arrangements, are not especially commercial. Dybdahl’s elusive, melacholy melodies require a degree of patience and attention on behalf of the listener. They do, however, all demonstrate an innate musicality and intuition. With Waiting For That One Clear Moment, Dybdahl has since taken his arrangements to exotic and fascinating new levels. He is certainly deserving of the many plaudits he has received, and the word-of-mouth buzz that has been building about him here over some time.