That’s probably, also, the age when you can interpret a love song best, and nothing better sums up the melodrama, passion and lovestruck awesomeness of being 18 and in love than a track like Hassle’s “Isn’t It Obvious”, all grand sweeping melodies and grand sweeping romantic gestures: “if holding hands is too discreet let’s make out in the middle of the street … couldn’t be more true, isn’t it obvious that I love you?” Erik’s soulful tones immediately recall those endless childhood days he spent listening to soul albums in that mate’s garage – it’s a vocal style that’s both incredibly studied and effortlessly natural. It’s a great pop voice from a massive soul music fan.
“Don’t Bring Flowers” is another of the album’s moments of melodrama, a song about being “so deep into the shit I can taste the earth” and how “each day I die in a million ways” – these are the torn out pages of a secret teen diary – whose chorus begs “don’t bring flowers after I’m dead, save your givings for the living instead”. The song is inspired, Erik says, by a friend telling the story of a funeral he attended of an acquaintance who hadn’t really made much of an impression during his lifetime. But everyone, says Erik, was at the funeral. “And that’s like regular life, where you’re treated like shit then people worry about it afterwards. You can’t just stand by not caring: who are you to mourn, don’t touch me when I’m in my coffin.” Less nihilistically the song also has parallels, Erik admits, in a tendency to wildly overreact at the collapse of a relationship you’ve done nothing to maintain.
Conversely another song which does on first listen suggest itself to be about love – Hassle’s mournful anthem “Hurtful” – actually casts its net far wider and takes us back to a specific point in Erik’s life when he was not yet a musician, but becoming increasingly disconnected from his friends back home. The story so far is that having grown up in tiny village built on a spring 150km south of Stockholm whose population was just over 500, then having moved at the age of 15 to Stockholm to study music, Hassle had been spotted at a school concert by TEN and the songwriter/producers Tysper, Mack and Grizzly, who then took Hassle under their collective wing and, with him, wrote and recorded the album you hear today. There was something strangely fluid and natural in this arrangement; perhaps no surprise as Hassle had been on stage since he was literally in the womb, his mother a keen amateur singer who’d tread the boards while pregnant with her future pop-star son. Hassle continues the “Hurtful” story: “It’s about how I isolated myself and a particular relationship. What I did to them was…” “Hurtful”, the song, was born. With the type of bittersweet twist of which pop dreams are made the feeling Hassle had as he stood on the precipice of fame would inspire a song so huge that it would, eventually, be the one that pushed him into the abyss.
It is, sometimes, unmistakably the album of a guy who spent his formative years in a remote, isolated village, and Hassle’s is an unintentionally powerful lyrical emotion one sometimes finds in the pop-lyrical musings of Swedes writing with English as their second language: sentences featuring words and phrases in an order quite unlike anything an English songwriter could summon, with a power that is both emotional and direct. From Abba to Robyn, Swedish songwriters and performers have held pop music in the palms of their hands for decades and this proud tradition now continues with Hassle – a new sort of soul singer with a different way of telling stories. The richly, sometimes darkly emotive pop music with an innate sadness in its melodies and sequencing is lent an almost superhuman power when coupled with lyrical twists that are almost conversational: scan through the album and it’s “I held your hand, is this the thanks I get?”, or “we all must go through it sometimes, you’re not the first you know”, or brilliantly seductive mental images like “the leaves may fall but the trees stay tall – this is a bump in the road”.
You might in fact argue that there was something rather inevitable about all this, given that Erik has some of the best pop-star hair of recent times. Just as his songwords arrange themselves in weird and wonderful and uncharted combinations so his hair is of an arrangement not seen atop the bonce of a pop singer in over half a century of popular music. “It’s become the trademark very fast,” he laughs – it’s the laugh of someone who, as a teenager, found his life dominated and wrecked by what at that point was an Afro. “Both red and curly,” he sighs. “The worst combination.” Something, one imagines, must clearly have changed in the life of this guy who was a quiet, sometimes solitary spirit at school but somehow decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to leave home and go to music college. And this, he says, is the story: back in the village when he was barely out of short trousers, his mother was teaching at his school, and one day pulled him out of all his friends and forced him to sing in front of his class. It was an old 60s song called “Hey Paula”. During the reluctant performance a light-bulb appeared above Erik’s orange halo; it was a moment of realization Erik shared with every singer who ever came before and every singer who’ll ever come after. It was the moment when he realized that he enjoyed singing, that people enjoyed hearing him sing, and that he enjoyed people enjoying hearing him sing. “It was a totally new thing I felt…”
With that emotional and direct music Hassle is, in person, rather similar – the subtle hints you get that he was, once, a slightly awkward teenager make way for his precise, definite manner and a penchant for direct eye contact many singers strangely avoid, along with that lyrical flair sometimes, quite inadvertently, creeps into his conversation. “I have,” he says at one point, “always been very close to emotion.” On Hassle’s debut album that emotion is unquestionable: on an immediate level this is, very simply, an incredibly romantic and addictive album, but it’s also an album that rewards repeated listens, telling the story of a teenager becoming a man.