Here’s my thought: I think that Erik Nilsson has a slider. And this slider has two settings at either end: charming and challenging. And as he takes us through his album Hearing Things, he moves this slider back and forth. Sometimes it’s at one extreme or the other; most times it’s set precisely in a spot that’s just enough of one while letting the other come through as well. It’s a tricky little balancing act, and while my first few listens to Hearing Things may have left me a little unsteady in terms of opinion, repeat listens have largely won me over. Nilsson’s work lands in something of a sweet spot for me as a listener, taking approachable bases, things possessed of an easy, lilting beauty, and then working them through this filter or that concept, finding workable juxtapositions and pushing envelopes as he goes. The album opens strong with the bubbling, slightly tremolo’d guitar notes of “Ex Nihilo.” Nilsson scrubs at his strings for extra texture, nudging the piece into a mildly hypnotizing rhythm and a sense of everything being made of crystal. There are a couple moments where a sweet jazz riff lifts above the sound for a nice touch. “On and Onward” is one of those tracks that just hooked itself into me the moment I heard it. Opening with big, emotional piano chords over a twinkling of chimes, it immediately establishes itself as a heartfelt ballad—and quite different from the tracks preceding it. Nilsson laces in a bear on the bass drum to bring a little extra force, and to get it ready to ramp up a touch more. Listen again for textured sounds, stuff that’s roughened up and chopped, that seem like they should be interruptive, but which instead not only add something when they’re there. but which, when they’re dropped back out, seem to amplify the clean ballad sound. The track that I surprisingly took to—after a couple of tries—is the intriguing “Distance, Wind and Heat.” We’re talking about a track that features what sounds for all the world like the ear-grinding squeal of a rusty swingset in motion. Nilsson starts off back at the piano, another sad song loaded with lonely echo. Guitar folds in…and then in comes the squeal. Honestly, it’s a little tough to listen to at first, and Nilsson even drops everything else out at one point so that all you’ve got is this sound. But wait it out. He begins to build the song back up, and once the drums come in, just this big, angry kick on the bass like someone’s pounding on the door, it not only takes off, but the squeal is suddenly a harmonic element playing counter to everything else that’s going on. Is it still a bit grinding? Well, yes. But everything else around it is so huge, so bold and forceful…you’ve got to dive into this one to understand. It works in a very weird way. Later, “Drawing/Dreaming” finds Nilsson alone with his guitar and lots of reverb. This is a sweet and simple piece with a load of soul. I’d take an album of just this, truth be told. Not everything works on Hearing Things. I could do without the stumbly minimalism of “Mood Swings,” and my vote is still out on the Reich-like “In One-Fifth of a Second.” Still, there have been many points during my numerous listens as I got ready to review this album where the emotional punch of Nilsson’s music just stops me in my tracks and I just need to take a moment to do nothing but listen. That’s effective stuff, and there’s plenty of effective stuff here. Do give this a listen.
Available from Hidden Shoal.