Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.
On its fourth album, Ambulance, The Amazing has a way of unspooling melodies that don't grab you so much as slowly burrow under your skin. Playing with an unhurried improvisational spirit, the Swedish band lets ideas amble along and develop naturally; it takes time to explore the nooks of its songs in search of deeper resolution. That lovely, resonant quality conjures a meditative mindset suitable for solitary walks or the melancholic stillness of an early morning. Yet all the haze shrouds everything in mystery, and it appears that Christoffer Gunrup wants it that way.
As The Amazing's enigmatic singer and songwriter (as well as one of its three guitarists), Gunrup submerges his muted croon just below the surface of the mix, singing so that his phrasing is practically imperceptible and his themes are equally tricky to parse. Gunrup makes a point to refrain from discussing his songs much or making lyrics available in liner notes online — the quirk of a guarded artist who insists the art speak for itself.
Like its previous works, and especially 2015's Picture You, Ambulance uses mood to tell its stories. Recording live with only a few takes to rehearse the new material, each member — Gunrup, guitarists Reine Fiske (best known for his work with Dungen) and Fredrik Swahn, bassist Alexis Benson and drummer Moussa Fadera — is given space to freely embellish the songs while they're still fresh. The result emphasizes sinuous melodies, lavish textures and spidery arrangements that forgo verse-chorus pop-song structures. Likewise, The Amazing deploys familiar genre touchstones (lushly orchestrated pop, British folk, pastoral psychedelia, cosmic mid-tempo rockers) as atmosphere-altering shorthand to transport listeners into its contemplative world.
From its first moments, the album-opening title track establishes an instrumental template that carries through nearly every song: Fadera's militaristic drum roll accompanies stark piano stabs, intertwining guitar arpeggios from Fiske and Swahn, and keyboards that swirl atop glacial orchestration — all while Gunrup sings elusive lines like, "You know sometimes you have to change." Later, in "Moments Like These" and "Perfect Day For Shrimp," The Amazing blends fingerpicked acoustic guitar and shimmering synths with a breathy whisper that evokes the crestfallen hymns of Nick Drake or Jose Gonzalez. In "Floating," twangy pedal steel and warbling synths give the song an almost country-rock flavor.
In "Through City Lights," Ambulance's longest and most stirring track, The Amazing conjures the winding story songs of Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek by unfurling every stanza with dramatic pacing, leaving plenty of room to let the words that stick out hang in the air. In those moments, he's able to project desperation as gentle strumming and a simple, ghostly guitar motif glide underneath.
While mostly striking a somber tone, "Blair Drager" does provide a change of pace in the form of smoky lounge-jazz and cosmopolitan trip-hop. Built around in-the-pocket break beats, slinky guitar upstrokes and sinister speak-singing, it's yet another satisfying color in the band's palette. The Amazing implies its heartbreak and haunted regret without explicitly defining it, and Ambulance succeeds by inviting listeners to interpret the meaning for themselves.