It’s no coincidence that pop music regularly invites comparisons between the sensations of the ear and those of the tongue. When done well, we call pop melodies sweet, honeyed, fizzy, or frothy. When botched, we dismiss them as saccharine, treacly, syrupy, or gloppy. We instantly know whether we crave more or want to spit out. The hallmark of a well-crafted pop song and the source of its power is palpability. The right melody can obviate the sourness of a bad lyric. It can deliver melancholy with ease. In rare occasions, it can induce rapture. Though the genre is often dismissed as the junk food of music, pop is in fact primal nourishment.
“The simple pop song is such a powerful thing,” Niki & the Dove’s Gustaf Karlöf told the Guardian last year. “It’s not only a commercial thing…we are talking about the songs that take you and the first time you hear it you get dizzy and you have to hear it over and over again.” Instinct, the Stockholm duo’s debut album, contains twelve such dizzying, compulsively listenable songs. Despite numerous misgivings and preconceptions, the album knocked me over head-first with the strongest melodies I’ve heard since Lykke Li’s Wounded Rhymes and, before that, Robyn’s Body Talk. Sweden, it’s official. You’re on a roll.
Instinct notably trades our age for New Age and ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a summer solstice festival. At times, it’s as schlocky as a bejeweled pewter unicorn, reeking of incense and scented candles. Spirit animals prance on nearly every track (no exaggeration here), not only without a trace of irony, but without a clue that irony even exists. Singer Malin Dahlström invokes magical forests, secret caves, mysterious deserts, and big skies teeming with celestial bodies. Instinct’s earnest silliness just begs for scorn. Only I feel silly scorning Instinct.
Niki & the Dove have produced a jubilant pagan-pop album out of the unlikeliest of sources: early-1980s post-disco pap. Low-end influences form the heart of the duo’s charm. Karlöf and Dahlström toss the likes of Laura Branigan, Bonnie Tyler, and Bananarama into the cauldron and come up with something weird and irresistible. The oddest track, “The Gentle Roar,” happens to be my favorite. Its chorus sounds like “Cruel Summer” sung into a yawning, paleolithic cavern. Spare and spooky, filled with whispered incantations and skeletal beats, the song, like much of Instinct, is about fear. In this case, it is the crippling anxiety of a still-supernatural world. Superstition passes through generations like a curse. But so do the rituals (“make a cross on your doorstep”) that provide protection against unknowable dangers.
Distress is also at the center of “The Drummer,” a woozy New Wave number. Dahlström’s booming heart is the titular percussionist, its every thump the surest proof of her existence (cleverly turning Descartes’ famous postulation, “I think, therefore I am,” on its head). Though its themes can be dark and mystical, Instinct sounds like a rattling, synth-driven celebration. “Somebody” recalls early Prince rave-ups and “In Our Eyes” brings to mind witchy Stevie Nicks dance songs like “Edge of Seventeen.” “Mother Protect” and “Tomorrow” are sagas, colossal in sound and sentiment. Only “DJ, Ease My Mind,” an early Niki & the Dove song, sounds uncharacteristically ordinary. Still, it’s pretty terrific.
Instinct took Niki & the Dove over two years to make, and the effort shows. Most of these songs have previously appeared as singles or on EPs. Karlöf and Dahlström carefully culled and refined those releases, and in so doing, have crafted a striking debut. Though we may be familiar with its individual ingredients, Instinct is a potion of loopy mysticism and pop grandeur that tastes thrillingly new. [B+]