Album review: Christian Kjellvander – Wild Hxmans

by Thomas Blake

Wild Hxmans is a dark, measureless lake of an album, full of strange ripples of unknown origin and surprising, bright islands. Each song creates a landscape, and often those landscapes are vaporous, shifting and uncanny. But to Christian Kjellvander’s credit, he never lets us lose sight of the fact that they are songs, tethered to the real world, that he is a songwriter, and the world that appears in these songs is his world.

And what a singular and beautifully examined world that is. Sweden-born Kjellvander has been likened to an array of deep-voiced and deep-thinking songwriters – Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Stuart Staples – but it is the apparent structural looseness and idiosyncrasy of subject matter of Bill Callahan that springs to mind on Wild Hxmans, as well as the wide scope of Eric Chenaux’s recent album. It has been called folk, jazz, Americana – none of these really fit. Kjellvander’s strokes are too impressionistic; each passage seems to be a contemplative reaction to a particular mood.

It begins in dissonance. Opening track Strangers in Northeim’s drone sounds like the edge of a void, and goes on just long enough to make you wonder if there is every going to be a song. But when Kjellvander’s voice does make itself known, its power is instant and cathartic. ‘The road is long but silence is longer’ he sings early on, and the song, perhaps the whole album with, feels like a passionate howl against silence.

Silence, pain and death haunt this album. But if there is a theme it is how best to capture the glimpses of light and beauty that the world can allow at the most unexpected moments. The narrator of Curtain Maker admits ‘nothing breaks me like the silence of death’, before taking a job in which you can ‘always let the light come in’. Of course, curtains can keep light out as well as let it in. Kjellvander is well aware of such dualities.

Steigga, perhaps more than any other song here, deals with the pain of loss. On a tide-like, slowly shifting drone Kjellvander’s near-whisper conjours the imagery of the sea – a deserted beach, the human spirit reanimated as a seagull – to help understand complex emotions. The Thing Is explores death in a more direct manner, and is the closest the album gets to Americana – a driving, discordant blues-rocker with echoes of Jason Molina.

There is a kind of philosophical thread running through the album. Kjellvander’s narrators go through periods of nihilism, solipsism and existential angst before arriving at a kind of hard-won acceptance of humanism. En route, he also dabbles in surreal images (the language of dreams, permeated with ugly horses and wild guitars, fills Halle Lay Lu Jah) and a kind of hard-boiled stoicism (Love Xomes).

As Wild Hxmans’ draws to a close, the clarity of its purpose begins to show through. Its final song, Faux Guernica, is its simplest and most heart-warming. It is also the most obviously autobiographical, following Kjellvander on a journey through Spain with his son. Of course, this being the album that it is, the darkness is ever-present, but so to is the realisation that a kind of redemption – a non-religious, corporeal kind – is always a possibility. Wild Hxmans is the embodiment of the journey towards that realisation, and it shines like a dark jewel.