Free Cell begins in isolation. Lina Tullgren’s guitar picks a delicate, slow-moving melody out of silence. Sweeping strings and brass echo out to some far-away horizon. In this moment, on the title track of Tullgren’s second album, they sound like the only person left in the universe. Fittingly, Free Cell is named after a game of solitaire.
Tullgren (who uses gender neutral pronouns) played the game compulsively while on tour for their first album, 2017’s Won: “Unlike normal solitaire, Free Cell can always be won,” Tullgren explains. “It’s all about organization.” Free Cell, the album, stems from that same quest for order; writing the songs became a way of sorting through emotions before moving on. Every game of solitaire is played alone — and at the end, there’s always a moment when everything snaps into place.
That shift from chaos into clarity is at the heart of Free Cell. Many of its songs were initially written between tours while Tullgren was living in their parents’ house in New England—sans car, alone most of the day, and sleeping in their little sister’s trundle bed. As the album materialized, Tullgren’s world took focus as they made their way from New England to Queens to be closer to their musical community.
Tullgren’s sophomore effort provides listeners with a portrait of Lina alone, discovering a new method of writing and a new way of thinking about composition. This stands in stark contrast to their debut album Won, a portrait of close companionship and collaboration between Tullgren and their best friend Ty Ueda.
The biggest development in the path to Free Cell was something unthinkable: shortly before recording, Ueda was injured in a car crash and Tullgren was unexpectedly put in the position of self-producing their own album, a task they call “terrifying.” “Suddenly I had to stand on my own,” Tullgren says. “I had to be in charge in a very real way.”
Mainly recorded and produced at Brooklyn’s Figure 8 Studios, with Ueda later assisting on final tracking at his Mount Misery studio upon recovery, Free Cell is masterfully confident. Some rock elements like nonlinear song structures and syncopated rhythms bleed over from the Won era on tracks like “110717,” but the album offers a wider musical palette than its predecessor, with lush arrangements
utilizing strings, brass and sculpted synths throughout. “Golden Babyland” abounds in tension and claustrophobia, finding Tullgren alone and “in the kitchen melting Legos,” while the elegant and introspective ballad “Bad at Parties” scores a moment of quiet social paralysis. The strings (arranged by Simon Hanes) that carry through Free Cell echo back to Tullgren’s education as a classical violinist and also reflect their own listening habits which include composers like Maurice Ravel and Hildegard von Bingen. Lina moves deftly between these various soundscapes, creating one of their own design, resulting in their most dynamic music to date.
On the song “Soft Glove,” Tullgren bids us, “Please take my memories, they’re free. Don’t ask me.” In this lyric, Lina opens up and welcomes strangers in despite their apprehension— a through line of the album, and representative of Free Cell as a whole. We can hear in their voice and their words how tiring it can be to invite people in, to exist amidst the chaos of your own emotions and experiences, to stand on stage and perform yourself for others.
Throughout Free Cell, Tullgren looks back on their memories from the position of an analyst, often cool and cynical but always with an undercurrent of humor and deep feeling. In their poetry Lina Tullgren writes anthems for the alienated, for those alone on busses, at parties, at their parents’ house, for those who cannot help but feel lonely even if they are surrounded by others. Free Cell invites us to sit and listen, to reflect, but with no guarantee of any of those things being easy.
Very challenging to pick a favourite song - they are all so potent. Poetic and poignant lyrics, that stand out and are sung with finesse, all to go along with lush acoustic instrumentals. Jeremy Backlin