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NOEL (Sweden) – Without Calling (single)

We welcome a new guest reviewer today, the incomparable Norwegian musician Nicolay Løvvold to run the rule over Swedish TikTok star NOEL, and his new single Without Calling, in a way only a musician can!

It’s become something of a lost pleasure; the days when you would go down to the local record store, pick up a piece from someone you’ve never heard about and then kind of chance it – it could be awesome, or you discover that you just wasted 14 bucks.

Those days have long since been forgotten, but it’s nice to be reminded every now and then.

That’s my way of subtly admitting that I hadn’t heard about NOEL until today, when I was kindly nudged towards giving his spring of 2024 song ‘Without Calling’ a listen. I am going to divide my assessment into sections below: initial thoughts, lyrics, the music and overall opinion.

Initial thoughts

I’ll be honest; my first impression throughout the first minute of the song was that I should probably steer my fiancé towards this track because it fits right into her preferences. You don’t know her, of course, but she veritably embodies the implied audience: chill vibes, radio-ready and friendly, with a not-too-understated hint of melancholy and vocalisations that we’ve generally grown to recognise and love over the course of the last fifteen to twenty years.

Around the time when that minute mark was about to pass, I started to feel the urge: okay, something needs to happen right about now; the song needs to evolve somehow. I noticed from the waveform of the song that this must also have been the artist’s thoughts because I saw that it indeed was seconds away from crescendo-ing into something that would resolve what would otherwise grow into a sense of needless repetition from the first verse, had it been allowed to continue for too long. This is a tried and tested formula, and a wise decision.

I was glad, then, when I heard that first transition and thought: oh, that was interesting!

From there, the song keeps building momentum, while retaining its motif, and even though it remains firmly based in lo-fi and indie territory, the strings and percussive elements add suspense. And do I detect a faint touch of urgency or perhaps longing here? I believe I do, but more on that later.

The tension rises all the way to the end, where it ends poignantly with the artist’s final words, which are emphasised by the silence surrounding his voice. Again, a widely approved and dependable strategy that fits well into the narrative.

The lyrics

Remember the sensation of urgency and longing I mentioned before? Yeah, that comes now, and sure enough the lyrics aren’t downplaying or concealing what’s being conveyed through this story in any way. I appreciate it when people are direct and clear(!), but it’s always fun to start picking each word apart to try and see if you can find more between the lines, all the same.

I dare say that NOEL is most likely struggling with some inner demons brought on by one of more less fortunate romantic experiences that has befallen him, and is that relatable? Well, if you’re human, the answer must be yes.

His very first words are already a dead giveaway of the aforementioned longing: “Teach me to dance in the moonlight; I’m sick of running away.” The natural follow-up question would be: what are you running away from? And he explains that in his second sentence: “Waiting for someone to try, so I can push them away.”

Oh, NOEL, dear fellow. So, you’ve made some errors in your life, then? Well, sadly we all make those mistakes from time to time, and the reality is we rarely realise before it’s all too late. He goes more into detail on how he’s betrayed trust in the past, and suggests regret that he seemingly isn’t learning. I have faith that you probably do, my friend, otherwise you wouldn’t have written a song about it. Let’s call that insight.

The chorus has a more uplifting ambience, and it has chosen to place its roots into hope. From here, the lyrics veer off into self-deprecating mode and the message becomes unmistakable: “I am truthfully not entirely satisfied with myself and my accomplishments, because it seems I have had a negative effect on people around me. I hate that, and I don’t understand why there are those who manage to see beyond it.”

“Shouldn’t love me, but you do (…) How can I trust when I’m not enough?”

Depression, anxiety and the overwhelming sensation that you are not fulfilling your roles and responsibilities as well as you should have, have all become the harsh consequences of the world that we’ve created for ourselves. For all the good it does, the world around us is also reminding us daily of the “should have’s” and “ought to’s” and the façade that everybody’s doing better at things than me.

It’s true, to some extent; whatever avenue in life, there’s always going to be someone who’s more skilled than you. The fallacy lies in the word everybody. I’m not saying that’s what people actually believe when they really think about it, but the sensation can definitely suffice.

This is the focal point of ‘Without Calling’, as far as I can tell, and it is also the main reason why NOEL’s song will resonate with a large group of listeners: there is solace in the affirmation that someone is going through the same struggles that you are also dealing with.

At this point, I feel like diving even deeper into his choice of words, but I’ll keep it short because I sense that I’m already pushing the boundaries in terms of length here. NOEL is wandering back and forth and is being inconsistent with past tense and the present. Do and did are notable examples. I can’t tell for sure whether that’s deliberate or accidental, but it leads up to some interesting questions:

Are lyrics based on one particular event, or several? Are they referring to something that has already happened; something that he regrets, or are they referring to something that is still unfolding? These phrasings are present even in his referral to the title: with his choice of words, NOEL infers that someone is missing him ‘Without Calling’ right now, but at the same time he has meant (and no longer does?) that much to that person. It’s a tricky bit of mind bomb for someone who thrives in details, that one!

The music

‘Without Calling’ tows in all the usual suspects within the genre. I’m feeling strong associations towards a certain red-headed individual back when he liked to think out loud with his trusty guitar on a boat on the river; before he decided to toss everything up in the air and go full pop-icon – not unlike the evolution we’ve seen in Taylor Swift’s carrier. We’re talking early days here!

That statement alone should stand as a strong argument for my first thoughts on the song; remember what I said about the implied audience?

Now, when it comes to the instrumentation, the acoustic guitar is non-optional in this genre. That instrument is notoriously difficult to get just right when you’re recording. Sure, it’s wonderful if you’re playing it in a cathedral… a bona fide nightmare when entering a music studio.

If you’ve recorded hundreds of songs, mixed them and mastered them, played them back in the car, your lousy headphones, the abhorrent mobile speakers; you hear the mud. You hear it because you’ve frustrated over your own takes and their exact same issues countless times. So, muddy acoustic guitars? Yes, I heard them. Casual listeners mostly won’t so it’s not a big deal; it doesn’t steal focus, and it doesn’t take away from the song as a whole. As soon as the vocal harmonies and other instruments enters the fray and start dominating the sound-picture it’s hardly noticeable.

The harmonies on NOEL’s vocalisation is well balanced, and the reverb is fantastic. It accentuates the poignancy of the chorus by utilising the opening in the head room in a beautiful way. NOEL uses vibrato in a way that highlights the soreness within the narrative, and that’s a neat touch that you don’t really think about – but it’d be weird if it wasn’t there.

The lead vocals lack just a sprinkle of clarity; we’re probably venturing into some experimentation in the shimmer-area around 10-12 Khz. The dreaded ess immediately comes to mind, then, and one can tell that work has already been done with those. There are techniques to remedy the issue; plugins would most definitely be my last recommendation if natural is key here – which I assume is the case.

From a song-technical standpoint, though, the vocalisation is just where it needs to be. This song requires authenticity from the vocalist, and the listener needs to feel the tenderness through how the vocals convey the narrative. This is something that the song does well, and now that I think about it; maybe some imperfections are necessary in that regard. After all, learning to accept who you are would be the reasonable prescription to the troubles that are messaged in the lyrics.

Overall opinion

So, there you have it! This song is ripe for a calm and gentle surrounding; might I suggest a cooldown at the end of the day? It is also highly recommendable if you aren’t feeling so good about yourself right now; it’s very comfortable to be able to listen to a song and feel like the artist is speaking directly to you while you go: “yes, that’s exactly how it is, you understand me!”

That being said, the song strikes me as being highly personal. It seems unlikely to me that NOEL would conjure up such a song without drawing from personal experience, and he’s a damn good actor if all that passion you hear is all make believe.

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