Life is all about subtle changes. With Dear John, Swedish popster Emil Svanängen makes quite a few changes, some of them drastic surface changes, and some of them subtle ones, but with a lot of impact. Under the name Loney Dear, Svanängen recorded three self-released albums before people in the states knew of his existence. Thanks to his fourth album, Loney, Noir, finding a home at Sub Pop, Loney Dear became a pop darling to discriminating fans and critics alike. Loney, Noir was an album of teenage dreams, fears and reflection, characterized by Svanängen’s sweet falsetto. But if that album was Emil’s high school angst, then Dear John is his newfound college confidence.
With Dear John, Loney Dear is no longer on Sub Pop. If the decision was purely based on business reasons, I’m sure that the folks at the offices in Seattle are eating their hearts out after hearing this new album, and possibly drowning their sorrows in PBR from the vending machine. While songs on Loney Dear’s previous album laze in wistful reverie, like a shy yet poetic acne-faced adolescent daydreaming about the love of a particular girl, the songs on Dear John strut with comfort, like a late bloomer who has finally and assuredly come into his own, flirting with no fear of consequence. It’s as if the simple and subtle removal of the comma from between Loney and Dear, the comma that was present within both the artist credit and title credit of the Sub Pop album, removed not only the literary pause, but also the literal pause, unleashing all of the momentum that went unfulfilled before.
The perfect illustration of the changes between albums comes in the center of the album, on the track “Under a Silent Sea.” Emil combines his melancholic bedroom folk tendencies with bedroom electronica, riding out his own loneliness on a wave of processed beats. “I Got Lost” finds him matching his voice to that of Andrew Bird’s emotive violin, and though the pairing on paper sounds risky, it succeeds in spite of itself. Emil is cheerier on “I Was Only Going Out,” with a whistling close that may remind other Swedish pop fans of another recent toe-tapper. Elsewhere on the album, Loney Dear constructs some of the most tightly constructed songs of his career, carefully orchestrated and yet finding experimental new ground. His lyrics and poignant harmonies still retain the boyish charms of Sufjan Stevens (as on “Distant Lights” and “Everything Turns to You”), but he can now also indulge in slinky disco synth vibes and New Romantic gestures. One might have to name drop A-ha and Depeche Mode along with the usual round of Swedepop suspects.
This doesn’t mean that fans of Loney, Noir have anything to fear by these subtle changes. Emil is still Emil, as is evident in the melodramatic “Harm / Slow,” featuring a portion of Albioni’s “Adagio.” His delicate vocals are still in play, though not nearly as indulgent with the high falsettos, except where appropriate, as in the background harmonies of the Bee Gees’-like “Airport Surroundings.” And Emil himself calls songs on Dear John either cousins or younger sisters to previous fan favorites. But, the songs bounce along at a faster pace, there’s more of a sense of adventure or mischief, and, after five albums, it seems that Emil Svanängen’s got it all figured out.