STOCKHOLM — For the last six months, the music producer Carl Falk has been venturing into his dark and cloistered recording studio in central Stockholm to collaborate with a ghost. “I was trying to produce through someone else’s eyes and ears — someone who’s not here,” he said with vexed intensity, while sitting at his control board. “It was really hard not to criticize yourself the whole time. Would he like this? What would he have done?”
The “he” Falk referred to — Tim Bergling, a.k.a. Avicii, the genre-redefining dance-pop songwriter and producer of global hits like “Levels” and “Wake Me Up” — died last April 20 at the age of 28 during a vacation in Muscat, Oman. A statement from his family at the time stated, “He could not go on,” and while they still decline to go into the details of his death, they are publicly acknowledging the death was a suicide.
The family, still very much grieving, is also breaking its nearly yearlong silence with two announcements: the arrival of newly completed Avicii music and the formation of a charitable organization called the Tim Bergling Foundation that will support groups involved with mental health and suicide prevention. A full album, titled simply “Tim,” is due out in June, and its first track, “S.O.S.,” arrives on April 10.
“Tim,” which counts Falk among its core production and writing team, is not a posthumous collection of musical leftovers. Instead, it concentrates on songs the artist was far into writing and producing during the last three months of his life, songs which, his friends say, he very much wanted released. Together, the sounds and sentiments they offer represent a cohesive and striking leap ahead for a musician already known as one of the most impactful innovators in electronic pop of the last decade.
“This was a different Tim,” said Falk. “A Tim that wanted to say something.”
To illuminate the origins of Avicii’s final songs, and to speak more candidly about his suicide, his father sat for his first formal interview since his son’s death. Avicii’s oldest friends spoke, too, as did his most trusted songwriting and production partners in the studios where they have just completed work on the project. All 12 who spoke were in agreement about one thing above all: Not only did they not see Avicii’s death coming, they insisted that in the months before it happened, he was in the best spirits they had seen him in for well over a year.
“He had so many plans,” said Lucas Von Bahder, a close friend since middle school. “There were things he wanted to do, places he was going to go.”
Albin Nedler, a collaborator who was staying in Avicii’s Los Angeles home when he left on his trip, recalled his saying he was “ in a really good place.” Another creative partner, Vincent Pontare, communicated with Avicii when he was on the plane to Oman. “He was super excited,” he said. “We talked about doing the album after this.”
Their testimony stands in dramatic contrast to the image of the star presented by the documentary “Avicii: True Stories,” which debuted on Netflix in Sweden directly after his death and in the United States this past December. The film, which friends say had the musician’s enthusiastic approval, portrayed an artist who seemed to be having a slow-motion nervous breakdown brought on by the relentless pressures of success and a brutal touring schedule. “My life is all about stress,” he says at one point in the film. “It will kill me.”
The movie also chronicled Avicii’s struggles with alcohol, which led to an 11-day hospital stay in New York in 2012 for pancreatitis; in 2014, his gall bladder and appendix were removed. Afterward, doctors gave him pills for his pain, which he later said were grossly overprescribed. With an unflinching honesty that his friends considered one of his finest traits, Avicii spoke in the film about his social anxiety, lifelong shyness and profound discomfort with fame. “He worked way too much and looked too thin,” Pontare said about that period. “I said to myself, ‘What happened with him?’”
Though the fast-rising star was at the peak of his career then, playing before hundreds of thousands of fans at gigs commanding $250,000 a night, the pressure, and milieu, of the hard-partying world of electronic dance music encouraged his most destructive habits. “It’s very easy to become too attached to partying,” he told Rolling Stone of that period. “You become lonely and get anxieties. It becomes toxic.”
Worse, Von Bahder said, “the more famous he got, the more amplified his social anxiety got.”
By the end of 2016, Avicii made a bold choice. He quit his highly lucrative touring career to concentrate solely on his greatest love: making music in the studio. Friends and associates say he quickly began to heal. In his adopted home of Los Angeles, he hired a personal trainer, started to meditate and began a writing renaissance. “He was looking super good,” noted Pontare. “We said, ‘the fire is back in him.’”
At the same time, the lyrics he was writing in this fertile period had a dark side. They referred repeatedly to “fading away,” being “low down” and “broken.” They also angrily dismissed “the party life” — ironically, the very scene for which Avicii created one of recent pop’s most rousing soundtracks. For the new single, “S.O.S.,” he wrote lines that Aloe Blacc, the vocalist on “Wake Me Up,” sings with special urgency: “Can you hear me, S.O.S./help me put my mind to rest.”
None of the people who heard those lyrics at the time found special meaning in them. To confuse matters, darkness had been an element in Avicii’s music from the opening song on his debut album, “True.” “Wake Me Up,” a No. 1 smash in nine countries and a Top 5 hit in America, finds its narrator experiencing the precise inverse of the redemptive refrain from “Amazing Grace” — believing he’s found, only to discover that he is, in fact, lost.
“Tim always mixed the dark and the light,” said Per Sundin, an executive at Universal Music, Nordic, who signed a deal with Avicii when the musician was still recording under the name Tim Berg. Hearing the new lyrics now, however, “You go, ‘Oh, is this a metaphor?’ You can interpret the songs in different ways.”
AVICII’S EARLIEST SONGS invited little such interpretation. As a teenager, he began his career by making simple beats on his own. But he developed quickly as a songwriter and, by 2010, created the fully melodic pop/dance gem “Seek Bromance,” a Top 15 hit in Britain. Things really ignited, however, after he took what some felt was a Dylan-goes-electric-style risk at the key electronic music festival Ultra in 2013, where he debuted “Wake Me Up,” which injected elements of folk and country into E.D.M., aided by live musicians.
“First, it was shock, then people started booing,” said Johnny Tennander, Avicii’s publisher at Sony/ATV. The young crowd was more taken aback when Avicii brought out a co-songwriter, Mac Davis, who had written hits for Elvis Presley. “On the internet, the comments were ‘rest in peace, Avicii’s career,’” Sundin of Universal Music said.
Later, the company tried to recover, and seed interest, by issuing a prerelease SoundCloud mix of the album, one bold enough to also include a song like “Hey Brother,” sung by the bluegrass star Dan Tyminski, and another penned by the avant-gardist Antony Hegarty (now Anohni). At that point, “People said, ‘hold up, this is something new,’” Tennander recalled. “He’s writing music history.”
“True” hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200; its 2015 follow-up, “Stories,” reached No. 17. “Tim,” which will be Avicii’s third album, advances his legacy of exploration by embracing psychedelia, Arabian music, sounds of the Caribbean and more. The lyrics, too, show significant growth. “The album felt coherent and personal,” said Tennander.
While the new music presents many new angles, the executives overseeing it insisted that they eschew the more commercial route of recruiting superstar guest stars to, instead, use only longtime Avicii collaborators, including Kristoffer Fogelmark and Nedler, Salem Al Fakir and Pontare. Even the top name involved, Chris Martin of Coldplay — who sang a new song that leaked last year, “Heaven” — had sung and helped write a 2015 Avicii track, “True Believer.” The second mandate for the record was to keep as close to the demos the artist left as possible. One track planned for the album got pulled at the last minute because, Sundin said, “it had developed too far from Tim’s vision.”
The producers say most songs were 75 to 80 percent done by the time of Avicii’s death. To fill in the rest, they relied on detailed notes he left on his phone and computer, some of which were written in his final days. It fell to Christopher Thordson, from the artist’s management team, to search all his devices for information. “He wrote very specific things about the music,” Thordson said.
Conversations about what, if anything, they’d do with that information, and with the music, began among the executives mere days after the star’s death. They received an encouraging response from Avicii’s father, Klas Bergling, who controls the estate. “It should be released,” he said in our interview. “No question about it.”
BERGLING, 73, who ran a successful office supply business before retiring, and his wife, Anki Liden, a well-known actress in Sweden, live in the same apartment they moved to when their musical son was 7. (He stayed there with them, and his three siblings, until his late teens.) Dotting their tastefully designed home are pictures of their youngest son, mostly childhood scenes at the beach. In the kitchen there’s a handsome portrait of a serious-looking Avicii that was used at his memorial gathering; his mother has tempered the intensity of the photo by placing in front of it a snapshot of him smiling widely while playing music with Nile Rodgers. Standing in the kitchen, his mother indicated the shirt, pants and watch she was wearing. “Tim, Tim, Tim,” she said, pointing to each in succession. “They were his. He’s with me.”
In the living room, Bergling sat under a giant painting of Stockholm created by his father, who had designed sets for the city’s opera, including one production directed by Ingmar Bergman. He spoke slowly and intently, staring down at the floor for long periods, meeting a reporter’s eye only when he finished speaking. He described his son as very shy growing up, a deep thinker who felt comfortable socially only with his closest friends. They spent countless hours in this apartment playing video games and watching the “The Lord of the Rings” film series and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Music came to him later, as a midteen, after his blues-loving, guitar-playing father gave him a guitar of his own. “Tim advanced quickly from my quality,” Bergling said with a smile.
His skill at computer games fed into a passion for creating sounds on music programs. After a few years of honing his style, he adopted the stage name Avicii, from a Buddhist term for a of realm of hell. “It sounded tough,” Bergling said. “That’s super for a teenager.”
As his son’s career progressed, and then exploded, Bergling noticed in Avicii an increasing stage fright, though he loved that his music was being received so resoundingly. Bergling feels the documentary portrait of his son as troubled captured much of the truth from that period, but he believes the timing of the film’s release, just after Avicii’s death, left people unaware of the happier, final phase of his life, after he got off the road.
Which leads to a difficult question: Why, 16 months into a brighter phase of his life, did Avicii end it? Bergling said flatly that he does not know. “There is no letter,” he said. He likened his son’s death to “an accident on the motor road” with “several cars.” “Nothing points in the direction that he was planning it.”
He would not talk about the method of his son’s death. “It’s not even a year since it happened,” he said. “The family is very traumatized. We want peace.”
To help achieve it, he and his wife take “Tim timeouts” from dwelling on their grief. “It sounds a bit military, but you have to be military to handle this,” he said. “We are very vulnerable.” He said it helps, as well, to speak the word “suicide,” something he could not do before. “I use the word as often as I remember to use it,” he said. “I have to get used to the word.”
The next day, three of Avicii’s closest friends gathered to offer their own memories. They visited the middle school where they all met, pointing out where they used to sneak cigarettes and alcohol. They talked, too, about the computer games that obsessed them. “We were nerds,” Von Bahder said. “We went into music to interest girls. It didn’t work.”
Strolling the neighborhood, the friends advanced to Ciao Ciao Grande, a favorite spot for pizzas over the years.
Directly across the street from their table lies the musician’s final resting place. “He didn’t have far to go,” Von Bahder joked. It’s on the grounds of Hedvig Eleonora Church, where the name Tim Bergling appears on a plain plaque not much bigger than a playing card, one of 48 such demarcations on a grid hung on a wall. The star’s exact burial spot isn’t indicated, to stress modesty and to maintain privacy. “It’s very Tim,” Frederik Boberg, another friend, said.
The friends didn’t linger long. In that same vein, they have chosen not to speculate much on the motivations behind his death. And while they’ve heard the new lyrics, they’re loath to look too closely at them for clues.
Falk, on the other hand, remains haunted by them. “Now, when I listen, I hear a lonely person with a lot of big emotions that he didn’t have enough people to talk to about,” he said. “I feel this music was his way of getting some of that out. That makes this a really important record. Whatever Tim wanted to say is here.”
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