What songs exist at the core of your identity? I’m not talking about your favorite music, your most played album, or your yearly Spotify Wrapped. Maybe this song is your parents’ favorite, so you heard it growing up. You may not know every lyric and be able to sing along; it’s about feeling every chord change and melody in your body, or experiencing the music somewhere deeper than in your conscious mind. These aren’t the songs that form the soundtrack of your most formative memories—they’re the songs that become memories themselves. You might not even be able to name one off the top of your head, since they’re not the songs you remember unprompted, but the feeling of auditory deja vu is unmistakable.
I’m sure that others may also have their own “coming–of–age” soundtracks, but my childhood may be the only one shaped irreversibly by the music of Two White Horses. The Swedish band was composed of siblings Jakob and Lovisa Nyström. I’ve heard secondhand that many other bands in their local scene, like The Bombettes or Isolation Years, were detractors of the Nyströms, writing them off as a covers act. They released one self–titled album in 2009. In September of 2020, the band posted their first Facebook status update in over four years: “It is unclear where the white horses [sic] went, but now the album is on Spotify again.”
And so, listening to this album after a decade felt like rediscovering something I hadn’t even known to look for in the first place. Parts of the album have unquestionably aged better than others, but it would be hard to match, for example, the electro–acoustic ballad “Eyes of the Noble” in the sentimental sway it holds over me. I rewatched the song’s music video and remembered the cringeworthy trailer for Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, which released the same year. I asked myself: Is this association or correlation? Was I just conflating two memories from the same era of my childhood?
Whether this was a coincidence or an active association, re–experiencing Two White Horses was almost akin to charting the development of my music taste. Listening to their cover of “Super Trouper” was a reminder of ABBA being my favorite band around that time. Lovisa Nyström’s voice is as clear as spring water trickling down from the Scandinavian Mountains. Some of the more baroque instrumentation, as on “Tous Les Garcons Et Les Filles” or the title track, may not have felt as stuffy back then, when I still loved Jethro Tull and prog rock.
My father, Paul Green, founded the music education program School of Rock. By 2009, he had sold the business and was looking to make a push into music management. He also loves Jethro Tull and ABBA. He first saw Two White Horses perform on a European tour with his students; after that, it may have been the faint remnants of ABBA and Jethro Tull within their music, Lovisa’s crystalline voice, or even the siblings’ masterful songwriting that prompted him to take a hundred–euro taxi through hours of black forest to see them perform at their home the next day. The way he tells it, everyone gathered around a wooden church in the center of town, the village children frolicking in the sun.
He brought Two White Horses to the States and put them up in an Airbnb in Manhattan where our family was still living. They performed shows at clubs across the city, but I only ever saw the Horses live on a cruise ship. Compared to the record’s electronic and/or classical flourishes, the band’s live shows were bare bones. Jakob would play guitar, keeping tempo with his foot on the kick drum like a one–man band, while Lovisa manned the snare drum. That sparse instrumentation was just the scaffolding for their perfectly calibrated harmonies, the kind that probably come far easier to siblings, especially siblings hailing from a country with publicly subsidized after–school music programs.
I have lingering questions—not about what happened to the Two White Horses, since bands failing to break through and instead breaking up is nothing new—but about what happened to their place in my life: I was young, certainly, but why do I only have one memory of seeing the band my father was managing live in concert? Why had their songs disappeared from my family’s music rotation? When I rediscovered this record early in 2021, my parents had recently separated. Even more than ten years down the line from my father’s management days, I’m positive that it was still a sore period for both parties. It was a time when my mom would have kept me and my sister away from our dad. The last thing she needed in the intervening years was any reminder of shouldering that burden.
During his tenure as manager, my father was struggling with a cocaine addiction. This is something he’s always been open about, and for that reason I never quite grasped the severity of his struggles with drug abuse when it came to my parents’ marriage. He would shortly enter rehab, and from there my family would move to Connecticut so my mother could be closer to her parents. Part of me wonders if she ever forgave him; though if she did forgive, she certainly did not forget. This newfound awareness, that I lacked as a nine–year–old listening to these songs for the first time, makes it doubly harrowing to listen to “Statues and Ponds,” with its chorus of “We know what you stole.”
Recently, I was driving with my father. I dug through his Yahoo mail to track down a cover of “Ruler of my Heart” meant for a sophomore album that never materialized. “Naked Natives” came on in the track listing, and we agreed it was the best song on the album. I still haven’t heard anything like it, and that’s probably because it takes years and years to hear a song with the heart as well as the ear. The lyrics perfectly matched our mood, which wasn’t quite regretful and wasn’t quite nostalgic: “Now you’re turning up the song / Like I should’ve done before / But my hearing was so bad / And my speakers were all torn / But now I’m ready to let go.”
Lovisa Nyström lives on the island of Stora Fjäderägg, Umeå, where the band filmed the visual for “Eyes of the Noble.” The island is full of birds, and among the actors listed in the video are “long–tailed tits, an owl, bullfinches, common blackbird and other friends.” There was a fragility in the emails exchanged between her and my father that makes it clear she was never destined for the spotlight. It’s most obvious on “Naked Natives,” but this entire record has a purity that I don’t think could have been replicated. Two White Horses maintains its clarity of sound and meaning, even if my memories are no longer pristine. Perhaps the Where the Wild Things Are association was apt—as I grow, this album grows, and I won’t leave it behind again.