David Pagmar's second album as Montt Mardié is, for all intents and purposes, actually two albums, packaged (quite beautifully) as the two-disc set Clocks/Pretender. Although the 20 songs contained here clock in at just over an hour, and could easily fit onto a single disc, each half has its own distinct character and conceit, and each is entirely satisfying on its own terms. Taken together they offer a bounty of tuneful and inventive pop music as rich as any that's emerged from Sweden, or anywhere, in recent memory. The loosely conceptual Clocks could be considered the "proper" follow-up to Mardié's debut, Drama, although it takes most of its cues from the classic songbook pop of the pre-rock era, rather than the 1980s, and eschews synthesizers in favor of stylish brass and string arrangements, fabulously rendered by a 20-piece big band-cum-orchestra. Also dubbed "the Clocks," these musicians are integral to the record's success -- they provide the buoyant, swinging backup for an authentically brassy rendition of the 1941 Frank Sinatra standard "Let's Get Away from It All," and help make nearly every other (original) song feel just as classic and ageless, from the full-bodied horn swells behind the swaggering "Set Sail Tomorrow" to the stately string quartet flourishes accompanying "Travelers." Mardié's gift for crafting timeless-sounding melodies is equally evident on sparer numbers like the opening piano ballad "Too Many Songs Unwritten," delivered in his searing falsetto, and the melancholy solo guitar waltz "I Will Write a Book." Each of the aforementioned songs deals, in different ways, with the central themes of romance, nostalgia, memory, and world travel, and helps to evoke a vague but potent sense of historical time and place -- the album opens with a thunderclap and a snippet of 1920s bandleader Jean Goldkette, and has an over-arching pre-war vibe, but references to the '60s also abound in the lyrics as well as the music, from the Apollo moon landing (in the epic single "1969") and Holly Golightly to the title of the achingly lovely "How I Won the War" and the bouncy pop-soul flavor of "Birthday Boy," a re-write of Drama's "Highschool Drama."
Pretender, meanwhile, feels somewhat scattershot compared to the relative musical and conceptual cohesion of Clocks, but it's nearly as enjoyable on a track for track basis. Each of the ten songs is a duet and a collaboration, all written by Pagmar but roughly tailored to the style of each collaborator and in most cases featuring their instrumental work or production. To some extent this offers a chance for him to demonstrate even greater range (beyond the already disparate Clocks and Drama), but since his partners are all mostly standard Swedish indie pop types the results can generally be categorized as wistful, acoustic ballads (the titular duet with Hello Saferide; the lovely "Castle in the Sky" with Jens Lekman), earnestly melodic synth rock (tracks featuring Mardié's labelmates Andreas Mattson and Vapnet), or effervescent dance-pop ("Metropolis," with Le Sport's Fredrik Hellström; "My Girlfriend Is in the Grand Prix Finals" with newcomer Mr. Suitcase.) Not that that's anything to complain about. For quite some time now Sweden has been turning out some of the world's best pop artists, indie and otherwise -- Lekman, Peter Björn & John, Robyn, the Knife, and Lykke Li, among others, have recently made their way to well-deserved world-wide audiences -- and both of these albums offer strong, ample arguments for Mardié joining their ranks.