sir Was — Gotherburg’s Joel Wästberg — started out as a saxophonist listening to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and the freedom which Coltrane in particular embodied goes a long way to explaining the non-conformist styles of Wästerberg’s debut album.
‘Digging A Tunnel’ is an album that won't stay still, won't conform, and which certainly won’t sound like anything else out there right now. Opener ‘In The Midst Of A Life’ embodies a soulfulness that sounds a lot like Money Mark at his most lucid, while ‘A Minor Life’ has a vocal that sounds like an unearthed Brian Wilson vocal reel set to crisp, shimmering electronics — and a set of bagpipes. And that's just the first two tracks on the album. Elsewhere, the verses on the fragile, tender balladry of ‘Heaven Is Here’ are built from little more than echoes and atmospherics, a moment of stripped-back minimalism which makes the bold, stirringly ascendant choruses and crescendo all the more stark a transition.
If the freedom of jazz helps explain Wästberg’s ability to think and compose without feeling boxed in by any specific set of musical limitations or boundaries, his vision is best expressed via a hip-hop, crate-dug aesthetic. Processed funky beats collide with found sound, guitars with synths, looseness with rigidity, wordless psychedelic rapture with precise rapping, field recordings with laptop tinkering, a Baggy swagger with a Bristol noir chill. Music made in such a broad church can sound messy, unstructured and nothing more than an unholy sprawl, and yet in Wästberg’s hands it sounds perfectly natural. Odd, wonky and unpredictable, for sure, but never once poorly-executed. Think of it as precision-engineered disorder.
It's tempting to try and decode the hidden messages in such albums; either that or we try and get inside the artist’s head and make sense of the impulses and motives using techniques culled from a short Wikipedia primer on psychoanalysis. With artists like Joel Wästberg it's a fruitless task. This is a musician who has simply absorbed a broad set of musical styles through a massively eclectic listening palette, and who sees no issue in crunching that together in one tidy little album. Embrace the chaos. You'll feel better for it.
Words: Mat Smith
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