In 1977, Donny and Marie Osmond crooned, "I'm a little bit country, I'm a little bit rock 'n' roll." I don't know if Tim Bergling, the 24-year-old Swedish DJ better known as Avicii, has ever dropped a needle on that old standby, but his debut album, True, definitely reflects an updated version of the same mindset.
Not content just to pump out another synth-laden, Euro-beat dance effort, Avicii alchemically blends not only country and rock 'n' roll, but folk, funk, bluegrass, pop and electronica too. You're just as likely to hear plaintive acoustic guitar work or singer-songwriter-style piano melodies here as you are stabbing, swooshing, throbbing synthesizers—though there are plenty of those.
At first, the ingredients mixed into Avicii's musical smoothie go down sweetly and fluidly—as is the case with his Top 10 folktronica hit "Wake Me Up." As the album progresses, however, it's a concoction that increasingly leaves an aftertaste.
"Wake Me Up," featuring Aloe Blacc, exhibits an irrepressible, youthful optimism about the future as Avicii rejects cynical, hard-bitten counsel that he's too naive about the challenges he'll face. "Feeling my way through the darkness," he begins. "Guided by a beating heart/I can't tell where the journey will end/But I know where to start."
"You Make Me" celebrates finding the love of one's life ("All my life I've been/I've been waiting for someone like you/I've been looking for someone like you/ … You make me/We are one"). "Dear Boy" dances through similar thematic territory with a decidedly Daft Punk-ish vibe. Likewise, "Hey Brother" delivers another uplifting nod to friendship and loyalty. "Liar Liar" confronts someone who can't tell the truth.
The iTunes bonus track "Long Road to Hell" deals with someone who's made a deal with the devil and only realizes too late what the deal really is, and what the grim cost will be. A friend tells him, "Just when you think you're getting away/No escape from the deal you made/You walked right into his plan/ … Call the devil by any name/Oh no! Now who do you blame?/Should have listened to what I said/ … 'Cause you're dead, and it's a hard road to hell without no soul."
"Hope There's Someone" opaquely expresses a longing for rest, peace and companionship after death: "Hope there's someone who'll take care of me/When I die, will I go?/And hope there's someone who'll set my heart free/Rest alone when I'm tired." The song also connects some of the dots between sin and shame ("And that sin, I don't want to go/To the seals of war through shame"). But …
It fails to offer much clarity about what to expect after death or how one might actually reach a heavenly result. We hear, "There's a ghost on the horizon/When I go to bed/Oh, oh/Oh, I'm scared of that middle place/Between light and nowhere/I don't want to be the one/Left in there, left in there."
"Shame on Me" features a man obscenely raging against a woman who has rejected him: "You can go to h‑‑‑ with your f‑‑‑ed-up friends/You crazy little b‑‑ch in the first degree/Shame on you for loving me." Then he moans, "I could not live without you/That's what I get for loving you/Oh, I can't live without you."
"Addicted to You" describes a romance in terms of drug dependency ("Hooked on your love/Like a powerful drug/I can't get enough of/ … I'm getting high on the perfume") and subtly implies that said addiction includes a sexual component ("I wouldn't last one night alone, baby/I couldn't stand the pain/ … I'm addicted to you"). Another suggestion of physical intimacy comes on "Lay Me Down," where we hear guest contributor Adam Lambert instruct, "Lay me down in the darkness/Tell me what you see/Love is where the heart is/Show me I'm the one, tell me I'm the one that you need."
Even though the narrator on "Liar Liar" is trying to find a way through tough times, he ultimately seems to capitulate to futility ("We, we are who we are, and we're all goin' under").
True isn't a false album, but it is cockeyed. It begins in an exuberant, earnest and bighearted place, with the first several songs affirming life and love and the joy of the journey, even if we're not always sure where we're going. But as things progress, the path onto which Avicii and his various vocalists lead listeners becomes an increasingly brooding one.
True romance degenerates into addiction, abuse and profanity, with emotionally dysfunctional lovers resignedly returning to those who've treated them badly. Then we get murky reflections on death and the afterlife, even as one unwise soul apparently makes a Faustian deal from which he cannot extricate himself .
Longing for peace and security, then—be it romantic or religious—isn't enough here to realize their promise.