Avicii's 'Stories' Turns 3, Helps Find the Man Behind the Myth
Today marks the three-year anniversary of Avicii's sophomore album, Stories. In October 2015, no one could have predicted it would serve as his last full-length release, following the 28-year-old's apparent suicide earlier this year. It was also the last of his work to be performed live, as about six months later, he announced his plans to retire from the stage. He cited his ongoing health issues, as well as an inability to continue a tour schedule so demanding that it has become the go-to example of unsustainable professional expectation.
In support of his debut album True, Avicii became the first DJ to perform an all-arena tour in the United States. Hits “Wake Me Up” and generational classic “Levels” had already secured his place as one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- DJ on the planet. When it came to Stories, Avicii had his pick of top-tier collaborators. It's 14 tracks feature an impressive roster of co-production and writing credits. Look through its liner notes and find the marks of Martin Garrix, Wyclef Jean, Coldplay's Chris Martin, Matisyahu, Mike Posner, Incubus' Mike Einziger and Zac Brown. On some international versions, The Killers' Brandon Flowers contributed too.
According to an interview with Rolling Stone, he'd also collaborated with Jon Bon Jovi, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and System of a Down's Serj Tankian, though those songs must have been scrapped on the final version. He also told the magazine his effort had become more focused on classic songwriting structures, though True didn't lack in that department. Looking back, Stories stands out more for its synthesis of influences. It's a bouquet of styles that pop in varied bursts; a patchwork of genres sewn together by the stitch of Avicii's signature melodic style and four-on-the-floor seams.
“Ten More Days” showcases moments of pure power balladry. Soulful, even bluesy and sometimes gospel-like piano chords become disco grooves on “For a Better Day,” or melt over trap beats and pop-rock guitar on “Pure Grinding.” “Broken Arrows” reminisces on themes felt on the country and bluegrass of “Wake Me Up,” then it's straight to the club with the glitch-house vibes of “True Believer” and turn-of-the-millennium vocoder dance-pop of “City Lights.”
Avicii gets with friend and “Without You” collaborator Sandro Cavazza on “Sunset Jesus,” which somehow invokes the chorus of 2Pac's famous “California Love” (itself a sample of Ronnie Hudson & The Street People) and notes of Kanye West's “Homecoming.” Reggae makes its presence felt on “Can't Catch Me,” thanks to vocal work by the aforementioned Matisyahu and Jean, while “Somewhere in Stockholm” utilizes marching snares.
Lyrically, Stories tells of battles hard fought and triumphs earned through painful growth. These are songs for dreamers of working-class backgrounds, or maybe lessons learned after success finds one more troubled than relieved. Seemingly the most personal, and perhaps hardest to listen to in hindsight, are the words of “Somewhere in Stockholm.”
“I hear echoes of a thousand screams/ As I lay me down to sleep/ There's a black hole deep inside of me/ Reminding me that I've lost my backbone/ Somewhere in Stockholm.”
Stories topped the Hot Dance/Electronic Albums chart and peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200, 12 slots lower than True, though it was hardly a slow success. It sold a million copies in its first month, and despite having only been out for three months, it ranked the fourth-most streamed album on Spotify for the year. Reviews were tepid. Most critics felt it failed to build or improve on the foundation of its predecessor. Few if any critics noted the artist's then-ongoing, and now often-mentioned, rigorous tour schedule, nor how he spent the years of Stories' creation in and out of hospitals.
It's easy to forget someone is in pain while their fortune is so apparent. In October 2015, Avicii had the world in his pocket, and any signs of trouble from a living star are easily digested as gossip. It's only when a figure so larger than life loses that life, let alone takes it, that we pay close attention to the shadows a spotlight casts. It's impossible not to look at Avicii's work through the fresh lens of its finality, but even knowing how the story ends, the remarkable truth of his legacy is how positive his music truly rang.
Stories is uplifting and melodically catchy, and while it makes no effort to hide life's hardship, it promises moments in the sun. So whether you're “Waiting For Love” or holding out “For a Better Day,” Avicii offers these Stories of silver lining.