Album Review: ceo – White Magic

For its relatively small size, the Swedish music community has over the last several years held the gaze of American music critics and indie music fans in disproportionate measure. Consider the wide-reach of El Perro Del Mar, Jens Leckman, Lykke Li, Robyn and, more recently, almost every act to release music on the Sincerely Yours label, which was co-founded in 2005 by ceo‘s Eric Berglund. A healthy portion of this fondness can be attributed to the Swedes’ ability to craft pop music that’s both sublime on its own terms and uniquely cohesive — each act sounds definitively and proudly Scandinavian. More abstractly, though, this endearment is ascribed to an exclusivity, or an elusiveness, which is most fully realized in Sincerely Yours’ increasingly infamous roster: jj, Memory Tapes (the only non-Swedish act), The Tough Alliance, The Honeydrips, Air France, and now, ceo. Unabashedly influenced by each other (and each other’s influences, however illegal here in the States), the Sincerely Yours family comes across publicly as a cadre of pop philosophers as much as they do actual pop artists. While their utopian theories on life and love might occasionally sound naïve to our hardened ears, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the blissfully modern sound those ideas are producing within the Nordic country’s idyllic borders.

White Magic, ceo’s just-released debut is a brief, but determined record that sings every word of the Sincerely Yours field guide without sounding rehashed. Instead of running from the Balearic dance sound that epitomized his other project, The Tough Alliance, Berglund and co-producer Kendal Johannsson tidied up the soft-dance equation, allowing the music to subtly evolve while more dramatically delivering a verbal statement of hope. Beginning with “All Around,” White Magic drips with positivity: the synths, acoustic guitars, Mediterranean grooves, strings and Berglund’s lyrics come together whimsically and impressively. Lasting just over 28 otherwordly minutes, the record seems to end before it begins, though its brevity belies the textured flurry of ideas present in every song, each an accomplished and high-spirited composition by a man whose spent most of a young life trying to best his pitiless, dark tendencies.

Composition, on White Magic, is the key word. Though it’s arguably best blasted from a sand-covered radio amongst the tropical environs this music so easily recalls, it would be grossly irresponsible to reduce the record to a single, forgettable function. Indeed, subtleties drip through every song with a flair and confidence only someone with Berglund’s pedigree could dispense. On “Love and Do What You Will”, “No Mercy”, and “Come With Me,” in particular, vocal samples, melodic toms, thick bass and majestic, arpeggiated keys lend a sophistication to a Scandinavian breeze pop sound that could grow tiresome if not occasionally re-engineered. Easily the record’s darkest cut, the well-placed title track that hits during the second act cannot be fully appreciated without headphones, as the ebb-and-flow of its synth lines and child chants would be otherwise missed in all their Depeche Mode-ian glory. Though Berglund would rather us focus on feel over process — ultimately, any record is better experienced this way — it’s precisely White Magic‘s cohesive complexity that lifts it above other, less substance-based Euro-pop.

For all of Sincerely Yours’ trademark ambiguity, Berglund’s new, um, persona as ceo has been surprisingly forthright. When the web first lit up with “Prologue,” an arty promo video that chaotically depicted Berglund’s transformation from deeply troubled to ebullient (the self-declared impetus for ceo), it wasn’t so obvious this would be the case. Rather, it was universally assumed the label would once again revel in its crypticism and frankly, few were saavy or committed enough to infer that ceo was the solo project of the Sincerely Yours co-founder. In a way, then, the record is simply a continuation of the exotic narrative Berglund and his friends have been telling all along, though it’s arguably the best release to surface from the label yet (Note: the record is a joint release with Modular). Accessible enough to earn a wider audience for a hazy pop sound that until recently garnered only a small, cult-like following, White Magic manages to keep sealed the label’s enigmatic image while enhancing Berglund’s stock by leaps-and-bounds. With his characteristic Swedish cool, the issue of whether he’d care to capitalize on increased name recognition is another thing entirely.


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