The theme for the new Testbild! album ‘Stad’ is the city. An appropriate title as cities pulled the band apart when most members left Sweden’s second largest city Malmö for Stockholm. Simultaneously, it was the second largest city, Gothenburg, that presented the opportunity to record this new album in Sonores Studios.
So while Testbild! isn’t really a band anymore, we have a new album. And that is cause for celebration. Their experimental pop is extremely tuneful, beautifully arranged and innovative. Grounded in Bacharach rather than the Beatles or the Beach Boys, they plow a post-punk furrow of their very own.
Having said that, the parts of this album are definitely greater than the whole. City life provides diversity, and so does this album. The flip side of diversity is incoherence and that is where I would place this as a listening experience.
The title track is a 16 minute freeform improvisation. A quite suggestive piece that makes me think that the title might better translate into “town” than “city”. Although it does get a bit noisy at times, it doesn’t feel like the stress and speed of a big city. Maybe suburbia then?
By being so different to the other tracks, the title track structures the album into three parts: A longer intro of pop songs, title track, and a shorter outro of pop songs.
The first track that really grabs your attention is also city titled, ‘Vita Staden’ (that would be ‘The White City’), sung by Petter Samuelsson. It starts out with jazzy drums and a sumptuous melody line fusing Rhodes and clarinet, and an atmosphere of urban innocence that you can’t help but surrender to.
The song turns out to be a microcosm of the album itself; not only is it steeped in a suburban feeling, it also replicates the three part structure with a longer pop intro, an experimental middle section containing sounds found near a pedestrian crossing, and a shorter pop outro.
But I would argue that the ultimate gems on this album are the more subdued tracks sung by Petter Herbertsson. Easier to overlook at first listen maybe. I am talking about tracks like ‘Skymningens kritiska punkt’, ‘Stram arkitektur’ and ‘Betongens form’. These songs absolutely nail every angle; songwriting, arrangement and performance.
And the lyrics fully capture the importance of making music in your native language; they are crisp, poetic and political yet devoid of cliches. For example, the first verse of ‘Betongens form’ goes like this:
“I betongens form / visar sig en tro på människan
Kollektivets kraft / cementerar drömmar
Välvda tak i takt / rytmen från maskinerna slår dag och natt
Året om dom ger / en oavbruten atonal…”
Taken out of context, that could almost be from a 1970s political prog album. But here, Petter’s shy to the point of I-really-try-to-pretend-I-am-not-here delivery creates an incredibly intimate environment that sucks you in and gently nudges you into the gently powerful release of the layered choir of the verse ending: “… symfoni”
I can play that single part over and over and over and still get a surging and tingling sensation every time. Honestly!
The second verse ends with the same mechanism although the words are different and suddenly it feels like a chorus. Simultaneously minimalistic and totally luxurious – and absolutely masterful.
So, while ‘Barrikad’ remains Testbild!’s masterpiece – this new album may actually contain some of their best pieces ever!