Swedish pop duo Niki and the Dove have long known how to bring the drama. Their first big hit was 2011’s "DJ, Ease My Mind," a grandiose, speaker-frying synth-pop song. Over the track’s thumping drums, weary-voiced singer Malin Dahlström sounds a bit like Stevie Nicks, begging to hear a song that reminds her of a love that faded with the end of a long-ago rainstorm. It would be another year before the band released their debut album, Instinct, on which Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf honed their talent for making stadium-worthy electronic anthems suffused with an earthy mysticism, all runaway horses and listening to the storm as if it could reveal secrets.
Niki and the Dove’s sophomore record, Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now, four years in the making and out on April 8, roams far from the witchy, Kate Bush-evoking dance music heard on their first record. In its place is a sound inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s disco, tapping freely into the spirit of artists like Donna Summer and Evelyn “Champagne” King. “Instinct felt like a call for something, like standing on top of a mountain and singing out,” Dahlström tells me over Skype as they travel by train from Gothenburg to Stockholm. “This record, it’s something new. It’s about realizing you don’t have to yell all the time – you can also whisper.”
Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now is certainly a much quieter pop record, the sort of album you’d listen to on your headphones at the beach as opposed to Instinct's large-scale, strobe-lit requirements. On songs like “You Stole My Heart Away” and “You Want the Sun,” groovy bass lines à la Chic drive the music through soft synth arrangements and reverbed drums. Elsewhere, the band crafts fun, steel-drum-laden tropical music on songs like the great dancehall groove “Coconut Kiss” and the far cornier “Shark City,” which is filled to the brim with güiro scratches, cowbell banging, and cheesy electric piano scales. In addition to the album’s ‘70s and ‘80s instrumental nostalgia, Dahlström and Karlöf also slip in overt lyrical citations: a little Prince-ly “thieves in the temple” mention on “So Much It Hurts,” a “we can be heroes just for one day” Bowie shout-out on their track “Pretty Babies.” But while they make direct allusions in their lyrics, Niki and the Dove steer clear of obvious homage in their music, opting instead to trace a nonspecific outline of pop's past.
After touring and performing Instinct in spacious venues across Europe and North America for 16 months, they were ready to downsize. “We had a longing for acoustic drums and electric bass,” Karlöf tells me. “And a challenge for us was writing melodies that felt classic.” And while Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now does feel classic in the sense that it feels familiar, harkening back to pop of the past, it also feels extremely contemporary. In America, chart-topping pop music has been wearing vintage sounds for the past few years, first with Taylor Swift’s 1989, then Carly Rae Jepsen’s similarly '80s-influenced E•MO•TION, then The Weeknd’s Michael Jackson shrine Beauty Behind the Madness. Now even Rihanna’s playing Prince.
“Music is always a reaction to something else: Punk was a reaction against big symphony rock, and ‘80s pop music was a reaction against punk,” Karlöf says. But nostalgia wasn’t ever Niki and the Dove’s intention, per se. “People might hear ‘retro,’ yes, but that was never a word of ours,” Dahlström says. “There’s songwriting from the ‘70s, the chord progressions and melodies they were using, that’s on such a high level. The challenge for us was to dig into that kind of songwriting and see if we could write music in that perspective that also works for today.”
Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now can be heard as a breakup album, especially on songs like “So Much It Hurts” and “You Stole My Heart Away,” on which Dahlström sings of dancing to make a split’s sting disappear. It’s an album that’s about trying to shake off a present feeling, of turning away from the sour and seeking something much sweeter. “Oh, you don’t get to know me,” Dahlström sneers on “Coconut Kiss,” her feet in the sand and palm trees swaying behind her, a great kiss-off image on the record. The title of the album, the band says, is ripped from the poet Allen Ginsberg’s quote, “It isn’t enough for your heart to break, because everybody’s heart is broken now.” “We wanted to write about this greater sense of, oh, what’s the English word ... a loss of caring,” Dahlström says. “You know, it’s pretty tough times in the world right now.”
To Karlöf and Dahlström, the themes on Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now speak not just to the broken heart, but to tough times in the world. “I don’t think we should be a political pop band, that’s not our goal, but we try to make music that has many layers,” says Karlöf. “Times are really hard, and it’s important to reflect on what’s happening around you and not just sit in front of the TV.” While Niki and the Dove say they want to leave the specifics of what they’re commenting on open-ended, between the refugee crisis and the Stockholm riots, Sweden has experienced a surge of political and social unrest in the past few years, and Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now is an album that touches frequently on trying to escape a heavy present.
“Somewhere, somehow, I lost you in the riot / In a suburban sunset, at a suburban street sign,” Dahlström sings on “Ode to a Dance Floor,” a rousing celebration of dance as a sort of unifying experience. On songs like “Brand New” and “Lost UB,” Dahlström stares out at the current landscape of her relationship, but also the city she lives in, and yearns for a do over. The track “Pretty Babies,” which plays instrumentally like an echo of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” is a song about empowering a younger female generation in a world that frequently challenges their choices and self-esteem, based on the 18th-century feminist Swedish poet Anna Maria Lenngren’s poem “Advice to my dear daughter, if I had one.” “I wanted to pick up her glove and write a song from a woman to her daughter in today’s age, although she was more witty and I am more serious here,” Dahlström says of the song, which she fought to have included on the album. “It’s like a hello from our time to theirs, because I feel like it’s a message that stretches through the ages.”
On “Play It on My Radio,” Dahlström sings of wanting to hear a song that’s a blast from the past, one that seems like a relic of a much more easygoing period. “It was such a long, long time ago, back in another life,” she sings. “People looked so different then, because they were smiling.” The song, with its warm, ‘80s synth-pop arrangements, is as lyrically nostalgic as it is nostalgically produced. Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now’s songs seem to answer the exact request “Play It on My Radio” makes – the band’s craving for retro aesthetics and sounds rooted in a more serious, escapist desire in a world where everybody’s heart is broken. “In this world, we have to comment in some sense,” Karlöf says of the album’s subtle political stance. For Niki and the Dove, a compelling call to the dance floor is commentary enough.