Music Reviews: When Melody Is Masterful

I listen to… a lot of albums. And I’m sort of falling out of love with writing reviews, but there are three things right now that are keeping me interested in life. The first, screenwriting, because what’s more enjoyable than the self-satisfaction after expelling your thoughts onto 100+ blank pages? Not much. Not for me. The next two are women: Karin Dreijer Andersson and Joanna Newsom.

Music from Scandinavia has been a commodity for the past few years. Sigur Ros, Mum, Bjork — the usual suspects. Of course, The Knife is just as flagrantly peculiar as any of them. They’ve had a tendency to slam genres together like a frustrated kid doing a jigsaw puzzle all wrong; it shouldn’t fit, but if you have it hard enough it does in an abstract way. It’s with their uniqueness that The Knife (composed by brother/sister duo Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer) have found success. Looking back on the decade (where they put together three albums and an original, ambient-esque score for some allegedly terrible Swedish film) they’ve sustained creativity where you’d expect it to have dried out. They’ve created a following in the music scene for their funky beats that range from something you’d expect The Neptunes to produce to a ktisch of T.A.T.u, but like the track Neon (from their debut album The Knife, 2001) states: “it brings me a new type of grace / and it keeps me coming back for more”. So how does this rambling apply to what I have to say about their latest effort? It doesn’t. All I’ve meant to do with this opening is give you insight into what they’ve accomplished and why what they’ve just done is a marvel.

With Tomorrow, In a Year, The Knife has completely changed their game. You’re probably thinking “Well that’s happening a lot. Look at Panic at the Disco and Tegan and Sara, they need to keep it fresh and interesting”, well that’s certainly the case in theirs, but what the Icelandic duo has done here is something far beyond a mere attempt at accumulating more success, but an intertwining of life and music itself; an immersing experience like no other. For a band to pop out an operatic LP as The Knife has done here is one thing, but to do so with such precision and about Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species? You must give credit where credit is due and this is The Knife’s magnum opus.

At 96 minutes, this is their longest album to date and it certainly feels it. Unless you’ve an aperture for opera-meets-ambient techno, then I assure you this album will take digesting. I’ve listened to it four times in the past few days; it’s really something else. Do you know the feeling when you’ve liked something a lot for a long time — a filmmaker, a musician, someone like this — and the entire time you’ve been watching them create you’ve thought to yourself “I can’t wait until they realize their potential”? This is a prime example of that. It’s happened a few times with me — PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, for example — and what’s extraordinary is that every time this transpires, this embracing one’s ability, it never becomes obvious. People are prone to impress you in the most fantastical and inspired of ways; The Knife are no different.

You’ll seldom hear the voices of either band member (unless I’m mistaken, then Karin Dreijer Andersson has the most capable voice in the history of music) as the majority is sung by an opera singer. The lyrics are difficult to distinguish which is also what makes this immediately intriguing. I’m sure when the album is released we’ll have official lyrics, but as of now I can only judge this as a mood piece… and it’s got a lot of it. The melancholic despondency of it all is overwhelming. If you’ve never experienced a traumatic event before, listen to this album because it encapsulates the despair so vividly without actually having said much.

Then we come to Track #3 on Disc Two. So far you’ve been listening to a fantastic album that has a sort of “hope emerging from a murky surround” type beauty to it — also symbolic in that Darwin’s theory was founded in such a way. So yeah, you’ve been listening to this album as it’s been coasting along in its grandeur and ambition, then you hit Colouring of Pidgeons. It feels a lot more like what The Knife has been doing with their career — a little more upbeat, but the opera is sustained with pitches being belted out in tune to the beat — and then boom, suddenly the hair is standing up on the back of your neck. You’re getting goosebumps, your heart has changed rhythm — this band has both transcended music and altered your perception of art. Three minutes into the song we hear Karin’s voice and she uses it in her most methodical way to date. It swirls amidst the composition with the opera vocalist’s, the lyrics are dynamic and perfection is formed. No matter how macabre I am and no matter how seldom I speak such words, this song — rather the build up to the song, then the song itself — is “perfection”. We’re subject to lyrics that mean nothing, but at the same time envelope what life is. This doesn’t last very long because once the myriad of syllables that mean nothing and everything stop, the opera singer pontificates freedom; all understanding of the world and the life in it has been relinquished. It was exquisite while it lasted, but to proceed in such a manner would contradict what the album sets to achieve; an understanding of the unknown, a solution to the paradoxical, a depiction of a man in the least imaginable way, a composition that exists as a philosopher does.

To say this is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard would be a lie, to say it has individual tracks I can play over and over again is a lie, to say anything apart from “I admire this deeply and am passionate about these artist’s passion” would, too, perhaps be a lie. It’s a deconstruction of our most principle understanding in this world; it’s simply beautiful.

Until this release I’d never fallen for Joanna Newsom. Be it my formerly weak palette for abstract musicians or perhaps I’d never given her a thorough listen, but when I found out she had a new album coming out, I was drawn to it for some inexplicable reason. Point being Have One On Me caught me off-guard and will undoubtedly go down as one of the best from this decade when all is said and done.

This album — also a monster in length at just over two hours — starts off with a single word: “easy”. It closes with “lala lalalala” and a thunderous boom. From the first moment to the last, an unhinged cadence keeps it all together; like a child refusing to color inside the lines, creating something pristine on their volition. This entire project is a rather pretty little thing, but complex as only someone like Newsom could provide. Her individual compositions, reckless vocal projection and blanketed meanings to tired concepts all equate to a fascinating product, and more importantly, a fantastic one.

One of the most distinctive traits of Joanna Newsom is how she handles her compositions. I’m sure you already know this, but I love her for this — she doesn’t patronize her listener by piling on the melancholy through deeper and deeper notes. She sustains a pensive perspective by doing what she wants in her songs and not muddling about in her own misery. Individual lyrics are seldom dire — unlike most acts today who display their sadness through pointblank wording (“she hates me”) — which is wondrous because Ms. Newsom possesses a poetic mind and expels her thoughts so hymn-like. Verses on this album are supplemented for stanzas and those stanzas contain some of the best imagery and metaphor that you could subject yourself to. If you ripped out any section of lyrics from any song from this album and glued them into a book of poetry, nobody flipping through said book would know the difference.

Even though there are no official lyrics at my disposal, Newsom’s style alone says plentiful about what she’s trying to convey. By altering her sound a few times during each song and a myriad of times during the entire album, someone who doesn’t understand English could easily interpret this work as cathartic to one’s malignant rumination. With certain lyrics — “I was tired of being drunk // my face cracked like a joke // so I swung through here like a braze of jackrabbits with their necks so broke” — working with the title of the album, it becomes simple to interpret that some (because only Newsom possesses a complete coherency of her work) of what she’s pontificating is from the retrospective of rehabilitated sorrow; a person that found comfort in an endless glass of alcohol because of a heart left stagnant.

Her word wielding is also unparalleled in the history of music. Cacophonous verbal collisions, saccharine soothers and a wily whimsy that is her heart and her harp, Joanna Newsom’s ambiguity is also the cultivation of literature; the congregation of wisdom, emotion and mortality into a two hour session. Jules Renard said “As I grow to understand life less and less, I grow to love it more and more” — such words define my attraction to this songstress; to pick her brain for weeks on end (an appropriate time frame in understanding this mind) may just ruin the magic that is Joanna Newsom.

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