opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH
The original Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1951) remains a nebulous entity in the back of my childhood brain. Regardless of the amount of times I am reminded of its plot, it persists as a pastiche of bright colors, sinister characters, and blurry scenes. Most attempts to recall whatever I once saw yield only bits and pieces of what feels like a distant and disorienting memory.
Eric Berglund, the man behind Swedish electronic outfit CEO, seems to have taken inspiration from the kind of mental overload provoked by the film, and dived headfirst into the rabbit hole when crafting his second LP, WONDERLAND. However, what awaits on the other side is one of the most fully-formed albums in recent memory; an immersive experience that teeters perilously on the periphery between dream and nightmare and jubilation and despondence, while remarkably never getting lost amidst the confusion.
Take the cheerful bounce of opening track “WHOREHOUSE,” whose neon synth trickles and sprightly pipe notes buoy something much darker. Berglund delivers lyrics like “Baby I’m still lost inside a whorehouse / No one can protect me from the flame” in an exercise in equanimity, remaining neutral despite the dense subject matter, allowing the connotations of his words to sink deep before being rescued by the irrepressible melody. “HARAKIRI” strikes a similar balance, with producers Dan Lissvik and Kendal Johansson weaving spoken snippets into the airy melody, imbuing the track with equal doses of levity and weight. The final product is a strange dimension in which hushed Japanese whispers comingle with laugh tracks, to marvelous results.
Apart from the initial track, “MIRAGE,” a coruscating confection of synthesizers and hollers with a simple, yet contagious chorus, is the most readily accessible tune on WONDERLAND. “When you say love / I see a mirage,” wails Berglund, condensing the ephemeral beauty and underlying emptiness of affection into a single sentence. Yet, it is the eponymous centerpiece of the album that most directly assumes the form of the emotional dichotomy hinted at throughout the remainder of the record. What starts out as a circus of revolving ambient noise punctuated by floating syllables, quickly transitions into a galloping carnival infused with elements of trance. At the halfway point, the gallop halts to a trot, and handclaps reign supreme in an extended middle eight with the cadence of a nursery rhyme.
Instrumental tracks “IN A BUBBLE ON A STREAM” and “jUjU” inhabit a strange realm of soothing sound interspersed with muted yells and mutated growls. Both are supremely unnerving listens not due to the ominous noises in the background, but rather because they sound pleasant despite their eeriness. Penultimate cut “ULTRAKAOS” trades in the calm of its fellow instrumentals for something more upbeat. While full-blown bedlam is never achieved, the confluence of hums, percolating percussion, flutes, ethnic choruses, and laser-like synths forms an unexpectedly pleasing potpourri out of its disparate parts.
Running just shy of thirty-five minutes, WONDERLAND’s eight tracks present a renewable opportunity to get lost. Each spin offers a chance for escape, but what endows Berglund’s sophomore effort with the glow of a masterpiece is its accessibility. Unlike with Alice in Wonderland, one need not travel all the way down the rabbit hole to enjoy it, and therein lies the magic. This time, the dream can be revisited as often as I please. I can relive the euphoria and the sorrow of each track, and get caught up in the catharsis of a slowly fading neon concoction over and over again. Yet despite each successive spin, WONDERLAND never fully reveals all of its secrets. This sense of more to come is best related in the semi-stoned final phrase of the album. “Who knows, dude?” A-