It’s time to stop calling Avicii EDM. If 2013’s True was out to prove that a dance icon could ease into the pop arena, Stories is his bid for multi-format crossover. It’s also more playful and easeful than the debut, even as it expands True’s reach. Given Avicii’s well-publicized health problems (issues related to gallbladder and appendix surgeries in 2014 led to a slew of canceled live dates), some melancholy would be understandable, but the mood of Stories is decidedly upbeat and lively. The ultra-polish has more of a human touch this time around, even if the Stockholm DJ’s sparkly keyboard licks have the tendency to turn even semi-somber tracks into the equivalent of a rainbow-haired troll doll.
As with “Wake Me Up!” there’s a heavy hint of country on some Stories cuts, particularly “Broken Arrows,” featuring Zac Brown, which, like that 2013 breakout hit, sounds as if it’s auditioning for Riverdance. But the dominant mode here is late-’90s alt-pop, particularly on “Pure Grinding,” which is beer-bash semi-skank for the Sublime demo, and “Sunset Jesus,” with Gavin DeGraw, whose splashy hooks resemble a beat-driven Smash Mouth or Third Eye Blind.
As on True, the nondance tracks are more or less power ballads, albeit with fairly pallid vocals: See “Ten More Days” and the quasiconfessional “Somewhere in Stockholm” (“I’m from a place where we never/Openly show our emotions/We drown our sorrows in bottomless bottles”). The big exception is “For a Better Day,” which has a slight gospel feel, though guest vocalist Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros) has about as much churchy grit as High School Musical.
The dance tracks are actually where most of this album’s pleasant surprises lie. The Martin Garrix-co-produced opener, “Waiting for Love,” sounds like Chris Martin is singing — but it’s really Simon Aldred of English indie band Cherry Ghost. Martin himself shows up on “True Believer,” sounding more cockney than ever over a sliding neon synth and backing vocals that have the offhandedly riotous joy of Basement Jaxx. “Talk to Myself,” “Touch Me” and “City Lights” are more or less direct Daft Punk homages, with a filtered, boogie-disco feel, playful effects and found-sound cut-ups. Even an assiduously crafted pop record — which is what Stories undoubtedly is — can pay tribute to its roots.