A household name in his native Norway, Thomas Dybdahl is a singer-songwriter in the Nick Drake vein. So, let’s try and get through a review of his self-titled UK debut, a best-of compilation which draws upon his first four albums, without using the words ‘glacial’, ‘delicate’ or ‘ethereal’. It’s going to be a tough call.
Consistent to the point of being indistinguishable, these songs draw us gently into their wispy-bearded world and then do little else. Dybdahl’s guitar work switches between tinny, precise fingerpicking and thin strumming; and his voice is whispery, fragile and spooked. Drums are brushy throughout. There’s some occasional bolstering from a string section, lap steel and Hammond organ; but underneath these superficial flourishes it’s whiny folk-lite melancholia all the way.
When his vocal pitch rises and the backing instruments strike up, one senses that the spirit of Jeff Buckley is being called upon: it’s no coincidence that the opening track is titled From Grace. This obvious observation, though, risks insulting the late troubadour: a fairer comparison would be with Damien Rice, with whom Dybdahl is currently working on an album of duets.
Aside from its mediocrity, the plodding homogeneity of this release sets alarm bells ringing when you consider that it’s drawn from a five-year body of work. Where there’s any deviation from the template, Dybdahl’s voice is never his own; whether it’s on the Antony Hegarty dramatics of Rise In Shame (plain hokey), or on the inebriated Rufus Wainwright slurring of B A Part.
And when the music livens up a little, we’re transported into even less interesting territory. For a couple of tracks, Dydbahl pops over the border into Sweden, drawing directly upon the shimmery, syrupy ’60s sound of The Cardigans and The Wannadies. It’s almost too predictable for words.
English isn’t Dybdahl’s first language, so we can afford to cut him some slack on the lyrical front. But lines like “it seems I have a weakness I didn’t know about til the day it rained” and “they label me insane, I wouldn’t play their game” have to count as self-pitying tosh in any language.
This is music to put on in the background while catching up on the day’s events over a plate of pasta and Dolmio. It’s chill-out music for people who actually use the word chill-out. It’s the kind of thing they pipe into gastropubs in Highgate, or into music venues before David Gray hits the stage. It’ll get four stars in the Sunday supplements, and middle-aged men who work in marketing departments of major multinationals will pop out to HMV at lunchtime to buy it on CD. Glacial, delicate, ethereal? Yeah, whatever.