Silent Alarm; Funeral; Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not; and Innerspeaker are four of the great debut albums released in the 21st Century. They catapulted Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, and Tame Impala to indie and mainstream stardom, and in the process these bands have been some of the most influential in music. They changed our perceptions as to what is sonically possible while also sharing stories that hit close to home for listeners. Swedish newcomers Damen may lack the notoriety of the aforementioned bands, but the quartet’s debut album, Sagrada Familia, is similarly emotionally captivating and brilliantly conceived.
Like the building being erected in Barcelona, Sagrada Familia is a majestic piece of art, and it is incredibly exceptional from start to finish. It is the painstaking work of Danial Bin Ismail Ärlig (vocals/guitar), David Nordell (bass), Adrian Gejrot (drums) and Gustav Bondesson (guitar), where each atmospheric indie pop-rock song tells a story. Most of Ärlig’s tales are personal, as he shares his struggles with his identity, where and what to call home, and anxiety and depression. Yet through it all, Ärlig and his bandmates discover the unexpected.
The album commences with the energetic and euphoric “Americana”. The title is a nod to the American dream, but it comes with sacrificing one’s self. As Ärlig says early on, “I figured I could be like everyone else / It was all that I wanted”. As the song builds to its fist-pumping conclusion, a sense of loss is created, as our protagonist is spiraling down into the deep abyss of assimilation and depression. He might have one name, but he has two faces.
The question of “who and I” is further analyzed on the spectacular “Someday”. It is a quiet, throbbing anthem in the mould of Arcade Fire. Although the guitars glisten and the rhythms enthrall, Ärlig’s voice is vulnerable, and his words are filled with lost. He intimately sings: “If I abandon my heritage i some way / I’m proud but I grew up somewhere else, no? / It felt like I was torn between my homes”. The song beautifully transitions into the melodic burner, “I’ll be waiting for it”. “His daddy calls on the weekends” reveals another element of lost in Ärlig’s past – that of a loving father.
For a moment, the band find a touch of hope on “Sagrada Familia”, which is euphoria on twenty Red Bulls. Its message, however, is spiritual in nature, as the quartet find something or someone in which to believe. The urgent, brooding, driving “Disco” follows, and it is simultaneously exhilarating and breathtaking. Through the foreboding atmosphere rises Ärlig’s story losing self-control after someone dear has left. His head is spinning and he “can’t simmer down”, much like how one feels at a disco. It’s a brilliant piece of allegory
Settling down for a moment, “Run, honey” recalls the LA music scene of the ’70s. It is a serene number that encourages one to break out of her shell and escape from the illusion. Similarly, the rollicking “Don’t get out of my head” is an expression of the unbreakable bond between two people and the feint spark of optimism it brings. That spark was originally lit on The Walkman-esque “Lights”, but it is ignited on the sombre but beautiful “Lights II”. Ärlig reveals the impact of this belief in his opening words.
“I think I lost my time,
But in a way that makes me want to stay.
And everybody else
Is in a haze, I don’t know what to say.”
The only thing that Damen has to say is they are here to stay. With an album like Sagrada Familia, it should, like the building Gaudi built, be everlasting.
Sagrada Familia is out on Swedish boutique label, VÅRØ Records.
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