Morabeza Tobacco‘s long-awaited debut album is an incredible, exquisite delight.
Much has been written about mysterious Swedish duo Morabeza Tobacco since the release of their first single, “TTYL,” at the beginning of last year — several of those posts coming from this site itself. And if that unexpected jam was included on any of your 2018 playlists, then we suspect that their self-titled full-length debut — out now on Luminelle Recordings and Naiv Recordings — has been high on your list of most anticipated albums of this year. Thankfully, all that waiting was not in vain; Morabeza Tobacco proves to be a curious and exquisite delight, a musical journey that will make you cry, dance, smile, and most of all, lose yourself to immersive memory.
Most of this is accomplished via the singular soundscape created by the group’s Vanilla Stillefors and Gustav Jennefors. Many of the words that have been used to characterize their sound include hazy, nostalgic, melancholy, warped, and lo-fi. Case in point, earlier this year NPR describing the aforementioned “TTYL” as having “a slightly warped, undeniably nostalgic quality… as if it’s been dubbed from cassette to cassette to cassette…”
This is an absolutely accurate assessment. Every track pops and hisses with a wash of intentional distortion — softening the sparkle of the slightly-bent synths and the crispness of the programmed drums — as if all the faders on the mixing console were set just high enough to allow the audio signals to rest steadily in the red of the VU meter. But let’s focus for a moment on NPR‘s description of the band’s sound as a “distinct mix of chillwave, vintage synth-pop, and funk.” As the statement aptly suggests, Morabeza Tobacco‘s influences are many, varied, and diverse, and the duo manages to successfully synthesize them into a peculiar and unmistakable sound. In a sense, they sound at once like everything and nothing else.
Take second single, “Defenders of the Glam,” for instance. Melodically and performance-wise, Vanilla‘s breathy innocence and Gustav’s processed vocals could almost be mistaken for Nina Persson from The Cardigans and Julian Casablancas from The Strokes, respectively, singing a duet produced by Ariel Pink. Earlier in the album, “Kiss of Death” puts an eerie and sad chord progression over a groove that exists at the intersection of Phil Collins‘s “In the Air Tonight” and Kavinsky‘s masterpiece “Nightcall.” “Together” could be described as Nintendo’s soundtrack to their hugely successful “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!!” video game by way of Hall & Oates, complete with the famous “Private Eyes” handclaps in the chorus. Meanwhile, synth- and harmony-heavy “A Little Longer” is like a bizarro version of “Tango in the Night”-era Fleetwood Mac — a kind of “Little Lies” for the new millennium — if Lindsey Buckingham and company took its funkiest impulses and turned them up to eleven.
Despite the massive popularity of many of the acts name-checked above, make no mistake: Morabeza Tobacco are outre at its core. In addition to the warped keyboards and distorted recording, other techniques are used to temper traditional pop sensibility. In the chillwave oddity “Something’s Missing,” the band eschews the typical 4/4 time signature of most pop songs and instead alternates (!) between 6/8 and 8/8. This same track makes use of an organ topline that almost serves as a chorus. At 1:50, however, after repeating that line a few times, the organ hits an unexpectedly off-kilter note that strays so far from what the song has done thus far, it feels like a mess-up. But this is no accident; the same thing reoccurs a couple minutes later, shaking us yet again out of the familiarity of the established groove. And in other tracks, the duo achieves a similar effect with guitar and keyboard solos that are so far afield from what would be considered “good,” that they somehow become awesome when situated within the context of the songs.
Thematically, the album sits firmly rooted in heartbreak and yearning. “We are almost home / And I am too stoned to / Tell you how I feel / Really feel about you” Gustav and Vanilla sing in unison on laid-back opener, “Almost Home.” The repetition of these lyrics throughout the song give the impression of obsession, of not being able to let go of a specific moment or event from one’s past. Such repetition is also heard on “Defenders of the Glam,” the pair again singing together, “We could be happy and we could be fine / Been waiting forever for you to come by.” In spite of the narrator’s best efforts at persuasion, we know that no one will be coming by.
“I feel you’re changing now / Possibilities are fading / Don’t ever lead me on / If you want to go, just tell me.” These lines comprise three of the four verses in “TTYL,” and there’s a lot to unpack here. There is an undeniably desperate quality to the lyrics, a begging to be broken up with as that would still be easier than continuing to bear witness to the slow, gradual dissipation of love. Immediately following this, in “A Little Longer,” Gustav and Vanilla trade vocals — his awkwardly passionate pleas, “Why don’t we talk? / Why don’t we speak?” to the angelic object of his affection are met with her earnestly wondering, “What if we tried? / What if we tried?” And yet it’s clear: even if they did try, things won’t end well.
The album ends perfectly with “Ally McBeal,” a lovely stunner of a closing track that I spent a few hundred words gushing over back in March. After several songs of hurt and longing, there’s finally a sense of hope and understanding: “I just had to call / It’s no big deal / Just want to talk / So what’s new?” Years have passed and both parties, having moved on, can now recognize the important role each played in the other’s life. The resultant effect of Morabeza Tobacco is that of examining a doomed relationship from different stages and perspectives — from crush to lover, from torment to acceptance — a kind of cubist portrait of a single relationship told in music. It’s an understated yet outstanding achievement, and simply one of the finest albums of the year.