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Sweden’s Johan Agebjörn might best be described as the photographic negative of his countryman Max Martin. Martin has made a fortune trolling the dance music underground looking for cutting edge sounds that he can plunder for mainstream hits for the likes of Britney Spears and Katy Perry, usually sanding off any glimmer of personality or humanity in the grooves with an eye only for the commercial bottom line. The overarching characteristic of almost any Martin production is slick soullessness. Agebjörn does the polar opposite – he takes electronic dance music and injects so much humanity into the proceedings that the circuitry and software practically weep with raw emotion.
Thus far, Agebjörn is best known in North America for his work with Sally Shapiro – surely the only disco diva in the history of the form whose most notable characteristic is near-pathological shyness. The obvious humanity and vulnerability of Shapiro’s music has made her an unlikely hit with the normally disco-averse indie rock crowd, and now Agebjörn has a chance to make a similar impression under his own name with his upcoming album Casablanca Nights, due May 10 on Paper Bag Records.
“Watch the World Go By” is the first single from Casablanca Nights, and it manages to trump even Shapiro in the aching longing department. A collaboration with Sweden’s Le Prix with angelic choirboy vocals from Janne Kask of the Swedish band Lake Heartbeat, “Watch the World Go By” is the aural equivalent of sitting home alone at night wondering what the unattainable object of your desire is up to at that moment.
The lyrics may not be especially deep, but sentiments like “I never wanted to be special / I just wanted someone that was special to be mine” tap into a universal feeling of longing much more effectively than more clever lyrics might – it’s doubtful that there’s ever been a human being who didn’t feel that way at one point (and even more doubtful that they could be considered human if they didn’t). Kask’s androgynous vocals sell the feelings effectively, summoning up the sad wistfulness of a long-ago unrequited crush.
Most impressive, though, is the way Agebjörn is able to wrest real feeling out of his synthesizers. Electronic instruments are so notoriously inhuman and cold that Kraftwerk felt the need to turn themselves into robots to play them, but Agebjörn is building a career out of having none of that. His techno beats, pulses and swells pack as much emotion as anything made on instruments constructed by hand out of wood and wire. Even without vocals, “Watch the World Go By” would get its message of melancholy romantic longing across.
As much as anyone ever has, Agebjörn is proving that electronics are just another instrument and if people have never gotten human feeling out of them in the past, they most likely weren’t putting human feeling into them in the first place.