Mattias Hellberg has been a key figure in the Swedish rock & roll scene for years, first as the lead singer of the Nymphet Noodlers (who ended up being a seminal band for the members they contributed to other, better-known Scandinavian outfits), then as an adjunct member of the Hellacopters, Diamond Dogs, Nationalteam, Thunder Express and the Solution, not to mention his duo with The Soundtrack of Our Lives keyboardist Martin Hederos. But he’s also released a couple of solo records in between stints helping other folks: 2004’s often brilliant self-titled debut (the best record a rustic Rod Stewart never made) and 2008’s Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Woods (a more psychedelic outing with his band the White Moose).
High in the Lowlands is his long-awaited third LP, and it scales back the rock excess of Frying Pan to go back to the mostly acoustic balladry of Mattias Hellberg. Recorded with producer/multi-instrumentalist Mattias Areskog, Hellberg keeps things simple, crooning over arrangements that are often little more than guitar and strings. That doesn’t mean the tracks are monochromatic, mind you. Hellberg and Areskog make good use of country time on “Oh no” and “Over & done,” subtly work a bossa nova rhythm into “Moon” and explore their version of French chanson (complete with exotic accordion) on “Like a sun.” The duo also brings in extra instruments when warranted, giving the lush “Blue,” the electric “You don’t” and the dramatic “Born into being alone” a full-bodied sound without pushing the melodrama button. Hellberg also includes a hidden bonus: a surprisingly effective cover of the old Bonnie Tyler hit “It’s a Heartache,” arranged for accordion and classical guitar.
By focusing the arrangements on the songs and his cracked, naked singing, Hellberg creates an intimate, involving record that puts his heart on his sleeve without sinking into solipsistic sap. High in the Lowlands is a low-key triumph.