There’s a vulnerability and braveness in the voice of Malin Dahlström, the lead-singing blonder half of Stockholm’s Niki and the Dove. It’s the sound of trying something different and knowing you’re doing it right, the sound of a career’s worth of aborted bands coming to a head, converging at the point they’ve always been heading toward but never quite reaching. You can find competing hints of desperation and aspiration in “DJ, Ease My Mind,” as Dahlström cries out, I was not prepared for a dead end…I want to forget/ I want lights to blind me. It’s in the music video, too: a glowing couple entwined on trapeze, dangling perilously toward the circus floor before snapping into position, grinning. That routine won Helene Turcotte and Luc Martin a gold medal in Paris at the 1989 World Festival of the Circus of Tomorrow and the band tracked the pair down in San Francisco to approve its use, showing welcome professionalism in this age of out-the-ass free-sampling video montage.
Niki and the Dove didn’t always sound like an art-pop archangel slowdancing to forty Korgs, though. Or rather, Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf, her partner in the band, didn’t. For ten years they’ve recorded together and apart, forming and dissolving disparate-sounding projects—performative knob-doodling, stripped-down rock bands and left-field disco. “I tried to be something that wasn’t really me, actually,” Karlöf says. “We tried to record ‘DJ’ with another band, but it didn’t work, it didn’t make any magic.” As much as Niki and the Dove feels like something different—Dahlström has never sounded so strong, Karlöf’s keys so rich—the band’s newfound fullness is an alchemic revision of their past work, rather than a departure. In their flexibility, in their evocative vagueness, Dahlström’s lyrics cover everything. On “Somebody,” she pleads, What if it’s meant to be and it is so right/ Do you want to come, want to find out? It’s about your boyfriend, and it’s about your job, and it’s about where to eat for dinner. They have mined the best parts of a dozen dead bands, folding them into the nondescript iconography of pop music.
With Niki and the Dove, Dahlström and Karlöf have shed the old constraints of genre for an open sound more indebted to epic cinema. For every fragile first-verse waver in her voice, there’s a brilliant release as she belts out the chorus, every shout reenacting the ecstasy of finding the perfect fit. “I feel free to do anything,” she says, that sense of liberation bursting from her songs. When the climax hits with Niki, it sounds like space travel, not for some technical feat, but for the joy of taking off.