What a long, strange ride it’s been for Tim “Avicii” Bergling. The future superstar DJ cut his teeth in Stockholm, emboldened by the success of fellow Swedish EDM superstars like Eric Prydz and Swedish House Mafia. He hit pay dirt in 2011 when his Etta-James-sampling “Levels” became a global hit. Cresting at the same time that dance music was taking over US radio, Avicii continued to make a name for himself by successfully collaborating with dance royalty, including David Guetta, Nadia Ali, and Madonna.
However, Avicii was not content churning out formulaic EDM; he wanted to try something different. He put his money where his mouth is, creating an unholy fusion of dance and country music when he debuted a new single, “Wake Me Up,” at Ultra Music Festival.
This was dance music’s “Bob Dylan goes electric!” moment, as the crowd decried Avicii’s new direction; after all, dance-country belonged to ridiculous novelty songs like “Cotton Eye Joe,” not would-be EDM kings. With the crowd against him, it looked like Avicii’s career was over just as it was taking off.
He, of course, had the last laugh, as “Wake Me Up” went on to become a huge crossover hit. Buoyed by the single’s success, the parent album, True, was an out-of-the-box smash when it debuted a few months later. The commercial validation must have been all the more sweet for Avicii, as the album significantly deviated from the standard EDM template, most notably with inspired collaborations from rock, soul, and indie artists instead of the usual dance personnel. Consequently, the songs felt more pop-dance than dance-pop. These gambits paid off in spades as True spun off four hit singles, spawned a successful remix album, and won Avicii an American Music Award. After confusing the crowd at Ultra Music Festival, Avicii was suddenly, along with David Guetta and Calvin Harris, the ruler of an EDM empire.
Having conquered dance and pop, there was excited speculation about what direction Avicii would take next. He started teasing his new album, Stories, as early as 2014, by drip-feeding the public one-off singles that were supposed to herald new his sound. However, first single, the Robbie Williams-assisted, “The Days,” was a cod-reggae misfire, barely denting the US or the UK charts (although it was number one in his native Sweden). Follow-up, “The Nights” returned Avicii to his now-familiar dance-country sound, becoming a moderate hit in the process. But when a cover of the Nina Simone standard, “Feeling Good,” failed to find a major audience, it looked like Avicii was floundering for a hit. Not surprisingly, none of these songs ended up making the final cut of Stories (though “The Nights” appears on a few international editions of the album). Had Avicii lost his mojo?
Thankfully, Avicii found his groove on Stories’ eventual proper first single, “Waiting For Love.”
Featuring guest vocals from Simon Aldred, of Cherry Ghost fame, the song’s beat is notably driven by a piano, not a synthesizer, suggesting that Avicii had once again taken a different direction. While the lyrics utilized a lazy, age-old trick of naming off the days of the week (a la “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas), it didn’t matter: “Waiting For Love” became a hit, and Stories looked set to build upon the success of True.
Unfortunately, Stories doesn’t deliver the same rewarding experience that its predecessor did — ironically, it’s because the album sounds like a retread of True. “Touch Me” is a slow-disco funk jam that would’ve been a perfect way to close out a night at Studio 54… but it sounds like a slowed down version of “Shame on Me.” Similarly, “For a Better Day” is a great, slinky piano jam, with verses that almost sound like a mid-tempo hymn. But the chorus devolves into a watered-down version of “You Make Me,” with its piano and handclap-driven beat. And in an absurdly meta moment, Avicii even recycles one of his own beats: the musical backbone of “Sunset Jesus” is pilfered from a remix he did of his own song, “Dear Boy.” Because Avicii is known for taking risks and pushing the boundaries of popular dance music, these echos of past glories feel especially lazy.
When it’s not recycling Avicii’s back catalog, Stories has too many ideas but not enough cohesion. While not damning by itself, the lack of unity on the album has the unfortunate effect of crowding out some of the A-list collaborators. For instance, in “True Believer,” Chris Martin of Coldplay supplies the guest vocal, and it should have been a triumphant moment, similar to the Avicii-produced “Sky Full of Stars,” off Coldplay’s last album, A Head Full of Dreams. Unfortunately, there are so many other things going on in the song — xylophone, piano, synths, distorted vocals — that Martin’s contributions are largely overshadowed. It should’ve been an album highlight; instead, it’s a missed opportunity.
However, “Sunset Jesus” is the most incriminating evidence of Avicii’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.
It’s a messy gumbo of quasi-motivational mantras (“Breathe for a minute, breathe for a minute, I’ll be OK.”), children’s cheers, and lyrics about a Sunset Boulevard Jesus, resulting in a song that sounds like a By the Way–era Red Hot Chili Peppers B-side. It’s not horrible: it effectively toes the line between infuriatingly addictive and ridiculously over-the-top. But it should have been so much more. The fact that it took eight songwriters (including Gavin DeGraw, Mike Posner, and a former A*Teen) to cobble together this hot mess further showcases the song’s shortcomings.
Avicii also has an unusual predilection for reggae on this album. Sometimes this works: “Talk to Myself” splits the difference between ‘80s synth-pop jam and tropical breezer, sounding like the Police filtered through Bob Marley. But more often than not, the results disappoint: Not even Wyclef Jean can save “Can’t Catch Me” from the same mediocrity that damned “The Days.”
That said, Stories does have moments of greatness: “Ten More Days” is a great tune that expertly marries lament-y requiem and mid-tempo dance. And “Broken Arrows” sees Avicii in familiar territory, fusing the core-country sound of the Zac Brown Band with Avicii’s own dance-y beats.
The song does what the rest of the album could not: It’s simple and uncluttered, it sounds commercial while still sounding unlike anything on the radio, and it recalls past glories while still bringing something new to the table. Additionally, on an album with no real “big drops” to speak of, the sonic explosion of a chorus in “Broken Arrows” is the closest burst of dance-floor euphoria we’re given. Had Avicii included ten more songs like this, Stories would’ve been a banger!
Luckily for him, the album is already a modest success, granting Avicii a future opportunity to craft further brilliance. He is still one of the freshest, most innovative artists in the business, but he needs to start boiling his ideas down to their most essential elements, and then cherry-pick the best of the bunch. He’s too good to be throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. Avicii also needs to remember to infuse his songs with the same zeal that made True such a treat. He’s already the master at transforming the boundaries of what a whole genre of music can encompass; now, Avicii needs to sidestep this temporary demotion and dream it all up again.
(Featured image via Sofibonita17/Wikimedia Commons)