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EDM Superstar Avicii Made a Kazoo-Heavy Kinda-Country Record With ‘True,’ It’s Awesome

Avicii / Photo by Jeff Lombardo/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 17, 2013
Label: Universal Island

Ralph Lauren Denim & Supply Co.’s executives must be thrilled. Avicii was already a star when he signed up as their brand ambassador last summer, but it remained to be seen whether the Swedish DJ’s neon trance would clash with the mega-corporation’s tastefully faded flannel and stonewashed denim.

But as anyone who has heard “Wake Me Up” can tell you — and with more than 165 million YouTube views for the song in just the past two and a half months, there are a lot of those people — we’re no longer dealing with the Avicii of “Levels,” the 2011 Etta James-sampling festival smash that turned the 24-year-old born Tim Bergling into one of EDM’s biggest stars. And we’re a long, long way from the kid who, in 2009, recorded a song called “Alcoholic” with the refrain, “Call it what you want to call it / I’m a fucking alcoholic.”On “Wake Me Up” — which now opens his debut album, True —Avicii inhabits his newfound country-pop shtick so naturally that you may wonder whether he somehow internalized Ralph Lauren’s aesthetic, or whether “going country” was part of the business plan all along. Guitars strum and twang, Aloe Blacc delivers a convincingly earthy warble, and the four-to-the-floor beat has more in common with country two-step than club music. (It’s worth noting that the song’s video doubles as an advertisement for the brand; in fact, director Mark Seliger lingers so lovingly on the fabrics of his actresses’ garments that you wonder if he was also getting kickbacks from Cotton Incorporated. Come to think of it, that’d be another great endorsement match: “Avicii: The Fabric of Our Lives.”)

Bergling had already begun this transformation during his much-guffawed-about Ultra Music Festival performance in March, where he brought a bluegrass combo onstage to enact EDM’s version of the Dylan-at-Newport moment in reverse. That set was widely regarded as an ultra-clusterfuck, as the DJ zig-zagged through various remixes of Macklemore, Duck Sauce, and Florence and the Machine (plus “Levels,” natch) before trotting out a full band, complete with banjo and kazoo, to premiere a string of True‘s down-homiest songs. Just as the main-stage crowd was coming up, Avicii turned it into a hoedown, and many of his fans were not amused. But he and manager Ash Pournouri stood their ground, promising that it would all make sense when the album dropped. And damned if they weren’t kind of right.

True isn’t actually a country record, or even a “country” record, though it occasionally wears the American heartland on its sleeve — on “Wake Me Up,” of course, and then again with “Hey Brother,” a rootsy number featuring bluegrass musician Dan Tyminski, best-known from his work with Alison Krauss & Union Station and on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. But the album can’t be pegged to a single inspiration. There’s a shouty British Invasion vibe to “You Make Me,” which pairs pounding piano chords and rousing Whoa-oh-oh-oh choruses with one of the catchiest melodies Avicii has ever written. The acoustic guitars and folksy harmonizing of “Hey Brother” are balanced by Stax-inspired horns and progressive-house whoosh. “Shame on Me” injects bluesy rock’n’roll with Zapp-via-Daft-Punk talk box, offsetting barroom piano with enormous trance-pop thunderbolts. Stranger still, “Liar Liar” kits out kittenish dance-pop with wheezy Hammond soloing and barrel-chested yowls, leading to the entirely unlikely impression of Ray Manzarek and Glenn Danzig getting down with Icona Pop.

It may be a sprawling hodge-podge, but all this works more often than you’d expect, especially if you’re of the opinion that, until now, Avicii has been mostly lucky — a producer of serviceably adrenalized electro-house anthems (more or less interchangeable with scores of similar boom-wzzzzap-bramp fare) who stumbled his way into the zeitgeist via a particularly canny soul-rave mashup. It turns out that he’s a smart, fun, and persuasive pop songsmith, closer in spirit to Bruno Mars than Swedish House Mafia.

Both True‘s eclecticism and its surprisingly tight execution are likely due, at least in part, to the fact that Avicii worked with such a staggeringly large (and diverse!) array of musicians. Long a predominantly solitary endeavor, electronic-music production is now more of a group effort where pop crossover is concerned, front-loaded with featured cameos and bolstered by journeyman songwriters. (Just consider David Guetta’s 2013 single “Party Hard,” which required the input of seven songwriters.) But the crew assembled here takes pop’s industrial model of production to new extremes, at least for an artist with roots in the EDM scene.

It’s a tangled web indeed: Aloe Blacc, the singer on “Wake Me Up,” has recorded two albums for the crate-digging backpack-rap label Stones Throw. Guitarist Mike Einziger, who appears on four of this album’s strongest songs, is a founding member of alt-rockers Incubus and moonlights as an atonal classical composer. Nile Rodgers needs no introduction, at least not after the carpet-bombing media campaign surrounding Daft Punk’s recent retro-disco reboot; fresh from that project, he plays and writes on both the rockabilly-rave hybrid “Shame on Me” and the fizzy pop-disco tune “Lay Me Down,” featuring American Idol alum Adam Lambert. (While we’re on the topic of talent shows, Lennea Henriksson, who affects a Björk-like hush on “Hope There’s Someone,” came from Sweden’s Idol 2010, while X-Factor‘s Josh Krajcik gets a writing credit on “Addicted to You.”)

As far as credentialed country musicians go, there’s not only Tyminski, but also Mac Davis, an esteemed songwriter and veritable legend who wrote Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation.” He’s essentially True‘s version of Paul Williams, the “Rainbow Connection” songwriter whom Daft Punk recruited for Random Access Memories‘ “Touch.” (He also appeared opposite Nick Nolte in the 1979 film North Dallas Forty, which seems worth mentioning if only for the way it underscores the batshit worlds-colliding logic of Avicii’s contributors list; it’s almost as though he were gunning for a place on future editions of Trivial Pursuit or consciously trying to elbow his way into the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” pantheon. Incidentally, Nolte was in Mulholland Falls with Chris Penn, who was in Footloose with Bacon. So Avicii→Mac Davis→Nick Nolte→Chris Penn→Kevin Bacon. Someone owes me a beer.)

Then there are less-familiar artists, including Swedish singer-songwriter Salem Al Fakir (who also sang on Avicii’s earlier “Silhouettes”) and his compatriot Vincent Pontare, who has written and sung for Swedish House Mafia (“Save the World”), Dada Life (“Kick Out the Epic Motherfucker”), and Sebastian Ingrosso and Tommy Trash (“Reload).” Session player Sterling Fox co-wrote Gym Class Heroes’ “Stereo Hearts” and co-produced Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games.” And then there’s relative newcomer Audra Mae, an Oklahoma singer who appears on “Addicted to You” and “Shame on Me.” (Her resume includes guest vocals for Flo Rida and All American Rejects; she also wrote Susan Boyle’s “Who I Was Born to Be.”)

Some of these choices do feel like conference-room attempts to replicate tried-and-true formulae: Not to knock Audra Mae’s considerable talents, but “Addicted to You” doesn’t even try to disguise its Adele envy. The same could be said for “Dear Boy,” in which the Danish singer Marie Ørsted (a.k.a. MØ) does her best Lana Del Rey impersonation over swarming kazoos and “Levels”-grade synth riffs, right down to the lyrics (“Oh dear boy, I wanna follow you / You’re a wild one, I am a wild girl, too”). Less pleasantly, there’s “Heart Upon My Sleeve,” which slaps Imagine Dragons’ toothless modern rock over a rudimentary dance beat, and adds see-sawing strings that bring to mind nothing so much as the cello-playing Metallica tribute act Apocalyptica.

With so many cooks in the kitchen, it’s reasonable to wonder to what degree Avicii himself was the mastermind behind it all, or simply the excuse to bring so many creatives together. Sure, he supplies the whizzing synths and stolid dance beats, but those are often the least interesting aspects of True. (Complicating matters is the fact that his manager, Ash Pournouri, gets a writing credit on every track.) But it’s possible to read the result as kind of pop Bildungsroman inspired by Bergling’s own troubled backstory. The EDM golden boy’s rise to fame hasn’t been without its difficulties. His Le7els tour was plagued by soft ticket sales, leading even music-industry insiders to point to it as a sign of EDM overreach. (WME Entertainment’s Marc Geiger called it “an irrational decision fueled by an irrational market”; Live Nation’s CEO called it “one of the scars of the business”; and even Pournouri admitted that it was a “disaster.”) In early 2012, just as the young star’s popularity was skyrocketing, he was hospitalized due to alcohol abuse and the kind of hard living that accompanies a 300-shows-a-year schedule; it was Pournouri, reportedly, who helped him clean up his act.

Those trials indirectly inform True‘s lyrical content, from the lost-and-found confessional of “Wake Me Up” to the devil-on-his-shoulder accusations of “Liar Liar” (“Will you ever tell the truth?”). You could argue, in fact, that the whole album represents a re-telling of the Pinocchio story, casting Avicii as the button-pushing puppet who so dearly wants to become a real boy. Pournouri plays Gepetto, the kindly father figure who takes him in and sees him through his troubles. Fittingly, True feels as family-friendly as any Disney picture, and that’s no slight. While EDM grapples with growing pains, beset by adult problems like drugs and money, Avicii has made an album with the kind of pure pop heart that’s as likely to appeal to eight-year-olds as it is to amped-up ravers. Ever since the days of Smart E’s “Sesame’s Treet,” rave has been about getting in touch with one’s inner child, and Avicii pulls it off here with a virtual island of misfit (and slyly well-matched) toys where, to the surprise of everyone, no one comes out looking like an ass.