Tim Bergling’s struggles were laid disturbingly bare in the film Avicii: True Stories – the story of a superstar DJ-cum-pop star whose fame and breakneck touring regimen left him a physical and emotional wreck. His relentless drive, meteoric rise, elfin beauty and substance abuse issues brought to mind Kurt Cobain. And his apparent suicide, following a decision to quit touring in the interest of self-preservation, was similarly crushing to a huge fan community.
The press release suggests Tim was near-complete before Bergling’s death, and his co-producers have taken pains to justify the project (in one case, salvaging MIDI data to duplicate notes exactly as Bergling played them). Still, many songs feel like stems: half the 12 tracks are three minutes or under; just two extend past four. Of course, as with any posthumous release — especially one trading at this scale — there’s financial incentive at work, and no main creator to ask about intent. But the music on Tim is in step with what Bergling had been doing in recent years, namely, trying to meld EDM’s on-the-ground bliss with pop’s in-the-ear bliss.
Thematically, the mood tilts dark, which is certainly on trend in the pop world. However reflective the lyrics may be of Bergling’s mindset during his final months, anyone inclined to read Tim as an extended suicide note will find supporting material. The opening track “Peace of Mind” complains of society “moving way too fast for me,” and the need for “a little bit of silence.” On the single “S.O.S.” (streamed 179 million times on Spotify in its first 2 months, not counting remixes or the 40 million who viewed the tearjerking fan testimonial video). Flexible soul man Aloe Blacc, who voiced Avicii’s monster country-EDM crossover “Wake Me Up,” here testifies to insomnia, pleads to a lover to “help me put my mind to rest,” and notes “a pound of weed and a bag of blow” as an apparent second option. In “Bad Reputation,” singer Joe Janiak describes feeling “lost out at sea” and “down, down, down low,” sleeplessly worrying his toxic mood and reputation is “gonna follow me wherever I go.” By “Ain’t A Thing,” an exasperated voice (Swedish singer Bonn), declares
When the record’s on the final song
And all the parties will be long, long gone
All the pretenders and the hangers on
Can go find themselves another one
Bergling’s songs were never known for their emotional complexity. But the music here isn’t so easy to read. With its predictably uplifting builds and studiously bright melodies (some purchased: “S.O.S.” interpolates TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Blacc singing “I don’t need my drugs” in place of the original’s “I don’t want no scrub”), one might reasonably come away from Tim as the testimony of a man determined not to succumb to darkness. Like Bergling’s 2015 Stories, not to mention the True Stories doc, Tim suggests a talent constrained by both mainstream EDM formalism and its culture. And like Stories, its limited success in wrestling deeper expressiveness from those tropes magnifies the tragedy of his death.
Songs still aim for maximum crossover yield. Imagine Dragons signed up for “Heart Upon My Sleeve,” a predictably histrionic mix of modern rock and trance drops with lyrics about feeling “broken” and “down upon my knees.” More compelling is “Freak,” a hook-science project interpolating Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” (which itself yanked DNA from Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”). With flashes of fear, anger, and depression in Bonn’s channeling of someone who tries to hide “the scars within” and “never wanted to die young,” it’s a rare gut-punch in Avicii’s catalog of utilitarian dance bangers.
The high point is “Heaven,” which Bergling began in 2014 with Coldplay’s Chris Martin — a dude who, say what you will about his career moves, can write the fuck out of vocal melody, and make generic lyrics gold. It’s a perfectly-turned pop-club hybrid clocking in at 4:37; Martin sings about being saved by love, and by the simple beauty of the night, both of which move him to shout: “I think I just died … and went to heaven.” It’s a textbook example of cliché pivoting into universality, and the shimmering breakdown — which suggests Philip Glass riffing on Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” — may be the best product of Bergling’s Americana fetish since “Wake Me Up” coined country-EDM six years ago, anticipating the yee-haw goldrush that Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is sure to trigger. For an artist whose music aimed for maximum accessibility, often to a fault, Avicii may well be remembered as an innovator. Sadly, this record feels like he was just getting started.