ceo is the perfect name for a solo project, since it connotes the feeling of being central to creative visions and decisions, as denoted by the corporate acronym. Under this name, Swedish musician Eric Berglund lets his pop visionary shine past the shadow of his late musical project, the highly-acclaimed duo Tough Alliance. In an interview about the apparent death of the group, Berglund explained that he and his bandmate were like “teammates in a football team,” and nothing more than that. So while they worked well as musicians together, they were completely fine working alone. Having accepted this, he went on to head his own solo project ceo, the name purposely kept in lower case, and released his first record “White Magic.” Four years later, he has come back with a record just as understatedly grandiose but with a darker tone than before. If White Magic was the day aspect, then Wonderland is the night. This sophomore record forays into wispy tropically-inflected electro-pop with enough edge to keep it afloat. Though he strikes a wonderful balance between poppy playfulness and darker introspection, there is more than a couple times where innovative ideas are cut short or fall flat that leaves you wishing for more. But in its good moments, it’s really good.
The record finds its novelty in the ebb and flow of poppy vocal-driven tracks and musical interludes interspersed in between, which creates an interesting balance between driving beats and infectious melodies on the one hand and wistful atmosphere and lush production on the other. Starting with “Whorehouse,” we get to see right away that Berglund excels at writing good pop music. Layers of synths and beats are proportioned just right, and Berglund contributes his charmingly sweet vocals to one of the catchiest melodies of all time. As we reach the next track “Harakiri,” the slow build of the first is released. If the first track was like going on a jog, then this next one is like floating down a stream. The beats are relaxed, so synth washes that border on magical are given the forefront, with this vocal flourishes in the background. And this cycle of alternation continues for the rest of the record.
One of the best things about this is that it creates distinct highs and lows in emotion and energy. It really makes you feel like you’re in some sort of alternate reality, a wonderland if the name of the record holds true. Right when you settle into a certain groove, it gets switched up, keeping you on your toes. The downside to this sonic roller coaster is that the tracks on the ‘low’ end of the spectrum often fall flat or are underdeveloped. Since they’re like instrumental interludes, they’re usually only around 2 minutes long and employ only one novel idea that’s repeated endlessly. It’s clear that Berglund works so much better with longer tracks, where he’s free to layer and layer musically to create a satisfying build. On the other hand, these shorter tracks often have wonderful ideas, but given the short amount of time they’re given, they wear on to no satisfying conclusion and pale in comparison to the ‘highs’ on the spectrum of the record.
Despite the shortcomings of these few tracks, his orchestrations possess a magic quality by riding a fresh line between EDM and introspective pop music. His lush vocals, ranging from a high falsetto to a gentle permutation of the mid-range, tell the story of love and loss in the context of the transfixing and mystifying culture of the night that his soundscapes convey incredibly well. Tropical synthesizers are used in varying ways to create a sense of playfulness and moodiness that inflect the mood well. What brings the record to a level of cool is the production and samples he employs. Berglund adds to the mix of synths and beats vocal sound effects that sound oddly animalistic, giving the feel of a wild party that grounds his music in the EDM territory. This is also recalled in the cascading synth lines that soar to amazing heights. The balance he strikes between serious musicianship and pure fun is one that makes the record keep up with dream pop contemporaries. Despite the shortcoming that lead its full potential astray, Wonderland is a lush record that holds its own in this pop-saturated world.
“When you say love/I see a mirage”