Though ‘otherworldly’ is often an overused term in music criticism, it would not be a misleading label to attach to much of the independent music that has emerged from Sweden over the last decade or so – from The Knife’s bleak, androgynous landscapes, to the sincere, liquid-pop of The Tough Alliance and CEO and the Balearic escapism of Air France and Studio, all of these musicians share an aesthetic that is at odds with reality.
Forest are a mysterious, Stockholm-based three-piece band whose self-titled debut album emerges on Service – the Swedish label behind Jens Lekman and Studio, amongst others. Though their music lacks Lekman’s attention to detail or The Tough Alliance’s immediacy, there’s a combination of creeping pop melodies, imagination and outright weirdness here that makes their debut a disarming, disorientating and intriguing listen.
One of the more obvious comparison points for Forest’s music comes not from their native Scandinavia, but over the Atlantic Ocean in Baltimore – the Waltz-like pace of their songs and reverb-heavy production recalls Devotion-era Beach House at their most sedate, though Forest are an altogether chillier proposition. In place of Victoria Legrund’s powerful voice is a more androgynous male vocal, whose lyrics are vague and usually obscured.
The result is that the music can occasionally stray from blissful escapism into easy listening territory – in fact, this may be one of their influences, as New Age atmospheres permeate some of the songs and the melodies sound like they’re lifted from long-forgotten 1950s radio hits. You could even point to elements of children’s music in Forest’s sound – the almost ever-present pulsing and swirling organ makes me think of a fairground, albeit a fairly ghostly and sinister one. Their naivety may be difficult to swallow at first (their press release describes them as “strangely untouched by postmodernity”), but there’s an edge hidden under this music’s smooth surface.
For example, opener ‘Out In The Streets’ conjures up images of snow-covered, deserted roads, though the lyrics (and you have to listen closely) immediately undermine the idyllic picture: “You don’t do crazy things anymore/Meeting a friend of yours won’t break you like before”. It also includes one of the most sinisterly-delivered lines about taking a bath I think I’ve ever heard: “You feel normal now… And cleeeean”.
This strange atmosphere permeates the rest of the record and becomes more apparent on repeated listens – ‘Just One Day’ turns out to be a gorgeously-soundtracked break up, with the chorus of “Is it really just one day/Since you took your things away?” delivered with a whispered, melodramatic intensity of someone like Perfume Genius or Jamie Stewart. Similarly, the simple melodies and layers of reverb on ‘Vivienne’ disguise something altogether more sinister, while the insistence on ‘We Can Go Away’ that “there’s no problem” ends up sounding like wishful thinking.
In the end, whether you enjoy Forest’s debut album will depend firstly on whether you’re immediately turned off by the dreamlike, naïve sound they’ve created. After this, it also requires a certain amount of perseverance – the lyrics are heavily disguised and melodies reveal themselves at a glacial pace. Underneath it all, as with fellow Swedes Jens Lekman and The Tough Alliance for example, is something altogether more complicated and intriguing – you just have to look for it.