Music Reviews

CEO Wonderland

(Modular) Rating - 7/10

This might yet be CEO’s (Eric Berglund) breakout year, an aesthetic leap up from his previous work with The Tough Alliance and his 2010 debut as ceo (he was lowercase back then), White Magic – the freaky psych-glam visuals that have accompanied this record see him standing out as an artist more than ever. White Magic was pretty, rough around the edges, and an easily forgettable record, but perhaps I didn’t give it enough time: at first much of Wonderland sounds sincere in its prettiness, until you realise what’s lurking beneath it.

The album peaks with opening track Whorehouse, which perfectly encapsulates Wonderland's goals. Coming over like a more accessible version of Gang Gang Dance’s suite-form art-pop journey Glass Jar, opening with a similar male spoken vocal sample to that track: but whereas Glass Jar opened with “I can hear everything. It’s everything time”, Whorehouse opens “And, uh, I felt like I’d opened Pandora’s Box”. But then it follows: “And… now I have to close it”. The track’s maximalism is discomforting; its excess is met with anxiety rather than Glass Jar’s exuberance. What follows is sugary pop music inflected with extremely subversive overtones. It’s the trick Passion Pit pull on you at their rare finest moments, getting so hyperactive and cartoonish that you begin to feel uncomfortable, when you realise their optimism is false. At one point, a child’s voice chants in Swedish, rubbing up dissonantly against an 8-bit chirpy videogame soundtrack. It’s CEO’s unabashed weirdness, its psychological multidimensionality, that puts Whorehouse a cut above anything Passion Pit have done.

Wonderland contains enough sonic diversity to recapitulate over the successes of Whorehouse across its 34-minute runtime. Consistently elaborate and multi-layered, it is consistently full of unexpected aesthetic decisions – in terms of genre references it’s colossal for its small stature. There are psychedelic film-soundtrack dream sequence scenes (Bubble on a Stream), a lot of circa-2000 eurohouse (Wonderland), maybe even the propulsive insistence of trap music (Ultrakaos) – always with enough oddball left turns to disqualify it from any potential radio play, despite its catchiness. The title-track centerpiece is nightmarish in its juxtaposition of its e-number-fuelled synths and swirling undercurrents of disturbing electronic swathes. But CEO never quite achieves the psychological depth of his opener, and his strengths sometimes sway more towards ear candy than songwriting – but that's an approach CEO does so well, particularly the progressive house audial bliss of the chorus of Harikiri (some of the album's most vertiginous, transporting moments, despite it being titled after a type of Japanese ritual suicide). Closer OMG hits new heights, its cacophony of sampled and distorted yelps and grunts clustering under saccharine harps. It’s a beautifully surreal listen, often cinematic in its special effects.

It’s very ambitious but also very flawed, but moreover it’s great to hear him take all these risks – it’s certainly worth a listen if only for a brief glimpse into CEO’s mind. It takes a while to recognise its complexity; it might take a couple of listens before you realise he’s not just being catchy. I don’t relate to it much, but this might just be a perfect soundtrack to someone’s inner world, and for that it’s something of an esoteric hidden gem.