In 2012 Niki & The Dove came fifth in the BBC’s Sound of Poll, released their debut album Instinct (7.9 in Pitchfork, 8 out of 10 in NME, “one of the essential debuts of 2012” according to BBC Music, a recommended listen in these hallowed pages, and a metacritic score of 73 overall) and seemed destined for greatness. So how, four years down the line, can album number two only get a release in their home country of Sweden? How has it come to this?
Instinct was a pop album of gigantic proportions; the sound of Stevie Nicks dropping an E in the club, a Laurel Canyon free spirit clashing against booming drums and pulsating rhythms with every single track a hit-in-waiting. In another universe “DJ, Ease My Mind” would be on every playlist on every station, yet other than the usual promo and extended tours across a very receptive US and UK there was no new music in the intervening years. Swedes Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf did take two years (or a decade if you want to take a broader look at their project) to craft Instinct, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the long period of radio silence.
Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now finds Niki & The Dove somewhere between staying in and post-club; while the beats remain, the groove is slower and the jams are more sensual. As many of their Scandinavian contemporaries embrace 21st century R&B and electronic pop music, Dahlström and Karlöf are reaching further back to the 70s and 80s, to Donna Summer sex music, Cheryl Lynn’s laid back disco and more than a dash of Prince. Less a cry over the music, Dahlström adopts a coo or an intimate whisper which seems appropriate given the Allen Ginsberg-cribbing title of this sumptuous album.
The mention of Prince is appropriate as the opening track “So Much It Hurts” not only namechecks “Thieves in the Temple” but shares the sentiments of that song; as an album opener it has a bounce only when we reach the chorus, the rest of the track finds Dahlström in introspective mode, trying to find a way to translate her pain into something positive – a theme which runs through Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now.
“You Stole My Love Away” begins with Dahlström asserting immediately that “[she’s] broken hearted” over scratchy funk guitar and a handclap beat but as the track develops she sings “I wanna blow you away” and takes some cues from her fellow Swede Robyn, affirming she will dance on her own to make the hurt go away. Heartbreak married to the most danceable of songs: a trope as old as time, but one which kills in the right hands. Dahlström and Karlöf master this at every turn on this record.
While “You Want the Sun” (one of the album highlights, with auto tuned vocals and a lusciously laid-back groove which will surely demand repeated beach party plays) and “Play It On My Radio” continue to keep the pop hit ratio high for Niki & the Dove, the second half of the record takes a more downbeat, relaxed turn which is where the Donna Summer and Prince influence really takes hold. Alongside this are songs with something of a political bent, or you can certainly read them this way and not just as songs of heartbreak.
On the twinkling soft rock of “Lost UB” Dahlström sings of being lost, not being a child anymore – a loss of innocence that’s as much about heartbreak as not being able to find a place in a changing world, while on the piano-led R&B of “Pretty Babies” the singer issues a rallying cry to a younger generation of women, quoting Bowie along the way as she hollers “oh let the music make you understand the signs, we could be heroes for one day.”
That leitmotif of political commentary through music and dance comes right to the fore on final track, the epic funk of “Ode to Dance Floor”. The freedom of dancing, being able to do it anywhere at any time in the western world, completely free of charge is one of the most unifying things, and when Dahlström sings “somewhere, somehow, I lost you in the riot / In a suburban sunset, at a suburban street sign” it’s a comment on the recent riots and clash of opinion on the refugee crisis in Sweden. We can lose direction thanks to poisonous rhetoric and actions but there are still people wanting to affect a positive change, and that can often be done through music.
Niki & the Dove are making their own quiet contribution to politics on Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now and at the same time having a subtle evolution, rather than revolution, of their own. Same band, different tempo, slow riot.