As you get older, I’m 58 for context, it seems to me that life becomes less of a single narrative… but fragments into different moments and memories. Maybe it’s just that we live in an increasingly less coherent society… or maybe it’s that the life lived becomes less pigeonholed into a single story. We are more mobile (the longest that I have lived in one town is eleven years), and we tend not to have the same job for most of our lives… we are nomads in many different ways… for some it means moving between borders, for others between social classes, and often a mixture of many things… we also gain and lose friends and family at different times and, in an age of social media and global communication, our contacts are not always physical… we ourselves become more fragmented and diffuse… the idea behind the name of this blog is meant to reflect just that.
All this put together means that our biographies are more individualised than ever… and, arguably, are less easy to grab hold of… as the American Philosopher Marshall Berman notes “all that is solid melts into air”. Perhaps the moment when this trend was halted or perhaps even reversed for a while was the pandemic, when many of us found ourselves in a position where we could reflect on that life lived… something which many musicians seem to have done… and Mikael Tuominen of Swedish improv band Kungens Män (amongst others) is no exception…
His second album under the name Solitär, Tuominen has produced an album that feels a long way away from the spontaneity of many of his other projects, to create an album that is very personal and is rooted in a great deal of thought and reflection and, although his life and circumstances are significantly different to mine, the way that he has thought this through is in a manner that I recognise in myself…
This is because, apart from another obvious difference to his other musical output, that this is very much a personal solo work, this album is not reflective of a single stream of consciousness… but rather through a series of thoughts/ memories/ moments that come together to tell you something about Mikael and what is important to him in a manner which for me feels brave and which, I hope, was cathartic for him.
Mikael was good enough to provide some thoughts on each of the nine elements of himself that he lays bare here, kicking off with ‘Electric Sea’ which is a really uplifting way to start the set… a positive beginning which is made all the more satisfying for him because it includes both his daughters on backing vocals. What it does for me is that it suggests the depth of reflection that he is setting out… but also how nicely he has arranged it.
This moves into what feels like the bittersweet ‘Ship of Excitement’, I’ll let Mikael speak for himself here:
“Ship of Excitement’ is an elegy for a lost loved one. My cousin Niklas was like a brother to me when we grew up. We were only ten months apart in age and he was always there. We roamed around in the northern suburbs of Stockholm where we lived and we spent many summers together in Finland, feeling free and out of place and just at home at the same time. We talked about all the things we thought life would become, but the way we imagined the future in parallel lives didn’t happen. And now in hindsight it is striking to me how he actually lived his life with a sense of urgency – ate really quickly, smoked too much, got up extremely early in the morning, always wanted to go swimming even though it was cold as hell. It is almost like he knew his time would be short although he couldn’t have foreseen the illness that took him. He is dearly missed and sometimes our life side by side feels like a dream. A beautiful shimmer. A reminder of the importance of going swimming in the summer, of enjoying a good book, of really feeling the taste of a delicious salmiakki, of living my life while I can. I live it for him too nowadays. He is always there by my side.”
It really is a beautiful song which I can listen to on repeat… and I very much like the idea that, in common with the other memories here, that they now have some permanence and durability as they are sonically enshrined in this work.
After that ‘Concrete Spaceship’ is about moving to a more affluent area after having lived in a predominantly immigrant area for years… about the wonder of the change, but also the complex emotions and reflections of being an integral part of this place… yet also not. This is reflected in the more quirky beat and an overall feeling of being slightly apart from things. There is a certain sense of alienation here, but not in an overly negative sense… perhaps a feeling of being tangential rather than set apart.
One thing that I didn’t have high on my list for writing about was a Twisted Sister cover, but here we are… and Mikael does it beautifully. I was talking online with someone just this morning how music is so contextual (they weren’t keen on Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ album, but I love it because I was 19 when it came out and it reminds me of drunken dancing at house parties). As Mikael points out this is a song that has a strong ‘what do you want to do with your life’ theme, and while he says he didn’t realise this playing LEGO with his cousin, the song has grown up with him… he took the ‘power’ out of power ballad… and has made something that is both beautiful and moving…
‘Bus Driver’ is probably the centrepiece of the album for me… after the slight 80s intro I think it has a real late-Bowie vibe. A song about his Father who emigrated to Sweden and worked all his life, only to die shortly after his retirement. Tuominen reflects on this life, and also on attitudes to immigration… which I understand it a rising issue in Swedish politics (in common with many other places). It is a very powerful song on all levels… and, as a listener, I feel privileged to hear it.
After that ‘Spegel Spegel’ is about going on tour with Kungens Män. From the outside this feels like something that is a special thing to do, as six quite different characters embark on a series of road trips playing however they feel every night… not only does the audience not know what is coming… I’m not sure the band do either… a fitting and psychedelic tribute to a ‘gestalt’ group of guys.
‘It Rains’ makes me cry… because I know the subject matter… it is about when one of Mikael’s cousins died, and how few witnesses of his childhood are left. I have felt this sense of poignancy a lot recently… an only child with both parents long dead, I had a cousin die almost a year ago to the day, who was the last person I know who knew me before the age of thirteen (I still have a couple of good friends from my teenage years)… it’s like the mental images of my early years are being airbrushed or washed away… which takes me straight into’A Flash In A Glass Jar’ which looks at the relationship between our physical body and our memories… both change over time and, as I suggested in the introduction, we seem to become less moored to any single narrative in our lives as our sense of self and the fragmented nature of society combines to leave us feeling more apart from our corporeal self.
Tuominen also reflects on this in the final track, ‘Brus’, which is about how our memory can fool us, and how our own futures didn’t pan out the way we thought they would… the optimism of youth when everything is in front of you, giving way perhaps to a tired pessimism… only to ‘come out the other end’ with a sense of resigned acceptance… a feeling of taking what comes and living for the moment.
The fact that it has taken me over a month to write this piece gives you some indication of how much Mikael’s album, and the notes that he provided me, have led me to reflect on things… ‘It Rains’ particularly hit home, but I liked how the whole album feels so naturally reflective without ever falling into the trap of being self indulgent… as I said earlier it feels like a privilege to be invited into these elements of Tuominen’s life… elements that are supported subtly, but effectively, by the music which feels (like music should) to be the accompaniment to his life… almost a sonic guardian angel.
‘Bus Driver Immigrant Mechanic’ is out now on Tonzonen.
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