It is fitting that Swedish singer-songwriter Emil Svanängen’s band Loney, Dear toured with Andrew Bird in January of this year. Both Bird and Svanängen are as much mechanics as musicians—those rare birds that tinker with sounds until they are pulled taught. (One can imagine either of them walking to school as children, whistling and running sticks along fences just to hear the noise.) Watching Loney, Dear perform at Spaceland on Saturday threw this truth into greater light than a simple listen to their latest (wonderful) album, Dear John.
Dear John is delicate and ornate, like a Russian porcelain egg, with dots and loops of music that circle back onto themselves. It’s a sad album, overall, with ragged bits of sorrow and song that range from traditional acoustic man-with-guitar-and-heartbreak à la Damien Rice to an edgier, synthetic melancholy evocative of Blonde Redhead. Carefully selected instrumentation builds to ecstatic crescendos. Some songs, like “Distant,” have such a pronounced dramatic structure that they seem plucked straight from the soundtrack of a film: Drum beats shake and rattle like those from a chase scene, and the use of organ-like piano sounds haunts the song, while voices like those from a young boys chorus lift the song into heights of Shakespearean sadness.
It was obvious that each song the band presented in concert had been painstakingly selected and revamped to fit the limited stage setup. When an audience member requested a song from an earlier album, Svanängen pointedly declined, quipping, “I used to like taking requests…” The keyboards generated electronic sounds resembling horns or the xylophone, and Svanängen occasionally used a voice modulator to give his pretty falsetto an electronic echo. He even got the audience to assist; rapt fans happily sustained a soft backbone of “ah-ah-ah’s” for “Saturday Waits.”
At another memorable moment, Svanängen stepped forward and sang a full verse of “Harm” nearly a cappella, with only the occasional vibration from his own acoustic guitar to accompany him. It was captivating and also savvy; even in a small venue like Spaceland and even with a short set, concert attendees can become jaded to the wonder of watching human beings performing on stage. When our frontman stepped back and the musicians around him resumed their playing, a sense of collective awe had hushed and replaced any residual din from people ordering drinks at the bar. In concert, somehow, the sadness of Loney, Dear’s music had disappeared, eclipsed in turn by the pure joy of witnessing such elegant craftsmanship. It reminds me of a lyric from the song “Summers”: “In a dream, I swam to the other side, and everything was different and the sun in my heart was light…” In the Looking Glass world of Loney Dear’s concert performance, everything was turned around a bit, and only for the better.