Solo albums can be a tricky business for some artists. Coming out of a popular and established rock group (The Blue Van in this case) to record under a different guise or constellation can often be perceived as “trouble on the home front” or “you guys are holding me back”, and can result in a confused mix bag of genres and purposeful sea change in musical styles. Whatever. Forget what you were thinking about and brace yourself for one of the best albums I have ever heard to come out of Denmark.
“Deserter” as a title will conjure up questions of what Westmark’s intent is - is he turning his back on his band? Has he just ended a relationship and now feeling the need to go all “Blood On The Tracks” on us? Or has he made a spelling error and made an audio book about pies. None of this seems to be the case, and I can collate my intel to inform you that his band are still intact, recording and touring, and it would appear that Steffen is a newlywed. Now, enough about the backdrop- the real treat here is the album I just heard.
Instead of dissecting individual tracks I just want to frame the piece as a whole a little for you. Summer is over, the nights are getting colder, new people are coming to the city, people are resuming their normal work and studies, you’re in love, either with your significant other, or with that girl you see on the bus that smells like fresh bed sheets and Jasmine, and your mind is beginning to recover after a summer of reckless abandon of all responsibility, this is the mood that “Deserter” must find you in for maximum enjoyment.
Over the 11 tracks, we hear a true songwriter doing his job. Steffen’s amazingly malleable voice is in a soulful relaxed mode, and seems to whisper in your ears, almost as if he is singing right to you. Each song is perfectly formed and adorned with light orchestral pastiches, saxophones, harps, or simply accompanied by non-intrusive guitars and drums. Even though in interviews, our man has mentioned that his may have been songs he’s collected outside of bands for a few years, it sounds purpose written with immediacy and emotion, and packaged as a whole, as an aural experience.
The songs are definitely in the vein of AM American radio, folky with hints of soul, country, Jazz, and to the tuned ear- an appreciation for both the songwriting and vocal stylings of Jeff Buckley (without the un reachable operatic flights of his remarkable range) and Ryan Adams (in a good mood). One song, (“Diamonds”) could even pass for Ray Davies singing a Motown ballad and closes with the line “Your love is more than gold, it’s diamonds to me”, and briefly I imagined I was S.’s apple in his eye, and he was singing just to me- possibly proposing marriage on an autumn balcony in Paris or something. A single tear came to my eye, but then I snapped out of it. Westmark is quite a catch though, a romantic, often writing about the best parts of love, both in relationships, friendship (“Raccoon”), and in an urban cityscape such as NYC (“Brooklyn diaries”) and “Raindrops (the roof of Chicago)” without sounding like he’s trying to put his journal to music and play the part of the confessional songwriter.
Each song builds and achieves maximum emotional impact without sounding formulaic or calculated and cheesy. All of the tunes are more or less radio ready, and linger under or around the 4 minute mark with verses, catchy choruses and instrumentation unique to each number, however congealed as one solid unit – which in the end, is the telltale sign of a perfect album. There is absolutely no filler here, no unnecessary guitar wanking or showing off, just pure songwriting, performance, and passion that is rarely seen to this extent in Europe for the craft of hewing a song from nothing into fruition.
In a world without the Blue Van, I can truly say that this record would prevail and flourish under it’s own steam. Fans of his previous work will certainly not be turned off by a slight switch in course, and the record may in turn serve to bring new fans in to both sides. In a world of radio friendly and often cold pop music; it’s a small victory to know that these tunes will succeed in moving its listeners.
I’m keeping this as my soundtrack to the rest of the year. I want to live in this album, will you join me? It’s a great place to be. Remember to see him at Radar on September 12.