One morning in February, sitting in a Melbourne cafe with my laptop, I had the privilege of hearing what my friend in Sweden had been working on. Ruben Hultman shared his ‘really raw’ version of his EP, Happy Face. I loved all four tracks of Happy Face at first listen, appreciating their punk vibes, even though the tracks were not yet done. I also heard something powerful in my listen (and every subsequent listen since); a step up.
Each solo release that has come from this emotionally expressive Swede has seemed to improve upon the release before it. Each track, as well as the circumstances around bringing it to life, has seemed to be a journey, taking Ruben through experiences of personal growth With its final polish applied by Max Hurrell who mixed and mastered the EP, I am thrilled to get to put my music journalist hat on and give these four tracks a ‘Depth Mag listen’.
Happy Face EP begins without fanfare; there’s a drumroll in anticipation, before we are swiftly pulled along on the journey along with Ruben. “Happy Face” at track one is where we start, and there’s a sense of urgency about moving away from things that are unpleasant. Ruben’s voice carries an edge of urgency, and the pace and structure captures the inner acrobatics required to stay (falsely) positive while real life unfolds challengingly.
It’s only at the bridge where that guard of stress feels as if it is softened. It melts into an admission that we can drop the frantic-ness, drop the fear of the dark times as they come, and find a powerful inner strength to face them waiting there within us. It’s an encouragement as well as a piece of hope.
“Slow, steady as you go
One step at a time
Happy days, darker nights
We’ll make it through the rain
We’ll make it back home again”
The resolution of “Happy Face” feels more balanced, feeling more accepting about the full spectrum of experience of life, and trusting it as it unfolds and allowing it all. Both joy and sadness (and everything in between) are a part of who we are, and we don’t have to be afraid of them. We can embrace it all.
Second on Happy Face is “Balloons”, which we have had the pleasure of seeing brought to life via its music video, which was filmed by Elias Gruvberger and directed by Ruben himself. While “Balloons” also carries a sense of confusion and seeking and wrestling with darker things, it is less desperate/urgent than “Happy Face”. Where “Happy Face” is inspiring acceptance of joy, “Balloons” is questioning where the effortless joy went, looking curiously toward younger selves that embraced it easily.
“Balloons”, with its soaring choruses and Ruben’s sweet vocals in up against a grungier sound, feels like a nod toward the dreamers among us (and within us) who never want to stop dreaming. The bridge and it’s ‘acceleration’ inspire a nudge to be proud of this and to trust in it.
“Yet still I do believe
That I can walk up on the clouds
It’s true that I can’t swim
But in the sky you cannot drown”
“Distorted Heart”, the third on the EP, was a favourite from my first listen and continues to be. While “Distorted Heart” still carries Ruben’s signature emo punk vibes, it goes into slightly different territory with an electronic edge, supported by the ambience and beat-work of Calle Winberg (who produces music as Retinue).
According to Ruben, “Distorted Heart” is ‘the closest thing to a love song I’ve written’. With each verse, Ruben uses metaphor to paint a vivid picture of intimacy, asking to be allowed in to a full-sensory experience of a meaningful and fluid connection. At the chorus, it feels like a declaration of who he is as a person; imperfect and emotionally complex, but hopeful and with a never ending supply of dreams that (as we learned in “Balloons”) will continue to unfold into something wonderful, carrying him onward and keeping him connected with his true self.
“You and I
Are very much alike
And we could be
Anything we think of in our dreams”
“Distorted Heart” is one of those songs that you’ll play on repeat, be it for the smoothness of sound as well as recognising the gift of intimacy that’s being shared via song. It’s a beautiful expression of vulnerability, hope and anticipation, but also feels strong in self-acceptance. If you know Ruben’s Portraits album, “Distorted Heart” is “Pictures” 2.0. He is no longer lost in wishing for what he feels he can’t have, and instead recognising his own value and stating clearly what he would like, unconditionally, to create it in his world.
The song builds as it continues, with Zack Liljeberg on drums adding his energy to this gathering of intensity. An EKG sample takes the heart theme and simulates what Ruben describes as a dying and rebirth. This perceived ‘distortion’ at Ruben’s heart may have been the result of past hurts and experiences that have shaped him emotionally, but there is a sense of pride as to who he is now and what he could become (‘anything’, we hear Ruben cry out, as the song ends).
“Give Them Hell” closes Happy Face and while it’s a rockin’ track, it turns into something even more meaningful when seen through the lens of this being an end of an era for Ruben. The encouragement shared lyrically in “Give Them Hell” as well as the punchiness of the track is almost certainly directed to a Portraits-era Ruben; telling him to go for it.
There is a surreal quality in feeling via “Give Them Hell” that Ruben has come full-circle and is now in an empowered state enough to send this message to earlier versions of himself who were merely holding on to a glimmer of hope (“Lionheart”), wondering why they were pulled to create at all (“Melancholy Melody”), feeling as though everything they wanted could exist only in their head (“Pictures”), and fearing they were losing themselves (“Grayscale Ghosts”). There’s something that’s so moving absorbing this ‘fight song’ that’s directed toward struggling past selves, as well as this empowerment also creating Ruben’s future steps as a musician.
“If I could have been there
I’d keep you safe from where all of my demons hide
If I could just repair
All the damage done and all the wrongs
You’ll never have to write this song”
“Give Them Hell” is an exciting close to Happy Face, feeling uplifting in itself and supporting the self-accepting, dream-embracing, and feels-appreciating tracks before it. As a creative snapshot in time, Happy Face speaks for Ruben in saying: “This is proudly me, that I fully accept, and I’m more ready than ever to kick ass”.
With his lionhearted courage and persistent desire in bringing dreams to life, Ruben has unwaveringly done the inner work that has been needed, and has constantly evolved and grown along with his music. Ruben and his music is the strongest it has ever been right now, and I feel it can only continue to get stronger.
When I see Happy Face brought to life after the effort and energy that has gone into its finished state, it inspires excitement for where this beauty of an EP will take Ruben professionally. I hope it brings his sound to more and more ears, and sparking even greater recognition of this genuine human that puts heart and realness of emotion and experience into his music; something surprisingly rare in the industry and worthy of celebration.
Welcome to the world, Happy Face!