The sophomore album from CEO, also known as Swedish singer/songwriter/producer Erik Berglund, opens with a voice saying “And then I opened Pandora’s box.” Considering the onslaught of hyperglycemic, kaleidoscopic pop music that follows, that phrase seems as appropriate as any. This is a Wonderland in name and in nature, with sugar-rush production that some will find sickly and irritating and others utterly joyous and infectious. It is less of an album than a hyperactive musical.
The opener both sets the tone and creates a benchmark for the rest of the album. “Whorehouse” is just a flat-out fantastic pop song, complete with bouncing beats, wild vocal samples, and bags of color and charisma. Its melody is persistent, and it has the kind of chorus that you’ll know off by heart after a couple of listens. As Berglund sings, “Baby, I’m so lost inside a whorehouse, no one can protect me from my game,” we also get the sense that lyrically we are encountering something much more introspective than the sounds that surround the words would have us believe.
In truth, lyrics play little part on the album. That opening song turns out to be one of five big songs around which the album is built. For sheer energy, the title track and “Ultrakaos” match its verve. “Wonderland” is the album’s centerpiece, a six-minute epic with undulating energy that allows the song to breathe over its whole length. Here Berglund talks of a wonderland with a point of no return, an apparently recurring theme that comes across as a search for meaning, the writer trying to find his place in the world and retreating to one that he has created.
“Ultrakaos,” on the other hand, is almost entirely vocal free aside from a mantra-like chant of “Ultra,” which comes off like the beckoning of a cult. Here the song’s energy makes it almost impossible to stay still, with a 4/4 thud accompanied by further production firing off in the background from speaker to speaker. The production on this album, even in its weaker moments, is constantly fresh and brilliantly executed.
Amid these three rushes of joy are two mid-tempo songs that provide a handy contrast. Driven by slower tribal beats, “Mirage” is a little more unsettling than what comes before, but in truth it strays a little too close to Passion Pit territory and feels a little pedestrian. The closer, “OMG,” is much better and actually proves to be a little more subdued than expected, with a murky intro that threatens something darker before a choir and some military-style drumming pull the song back into the light.
For the most part, those five songs are uniformly excellent and provide more than enough to recommend the album. The problem is the three bridge tracks that flesh out the running time, which prove to be a case of diminishing returns. Early on in the album, “Harakiri” spends three minutes not really going anywhere, but it goes nowhere gorgeously, built around a genuinely lovely melody. The other two songs, while maintaining that lushness, just feel like filler. With the album barely straying over the half-hour mark, the result is a feeling that the listener is actually a little undernourished despite the feast that has just been served up.
In the end, Wonderland feels like an incredible EP that has been stretched out into an album that is merely very good. Its riches, however, make it well worth revisiting constantly. The contrast of introspection (and some addictive gibberish, truth be told) with the extroverted production creates a constant push-pull tension that makes for compelling listening. More than anything else, Wonderland is just a huge amount of fun and a place I urge you to visit.
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