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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Anna von Hausswolff: Singing From The Grave


1) Move On; 2) Track Of Time; 3) Pills; 4) Above All; 5) Singing From The Grave; 6) Lost At Sea; 7) Old Beauty / Du Kan Nu Dö; 8) The Book; 9) I Am Leaving.

It is not difficult, I presume, to guess the first impression recorded by an eye that happens to fall upon an album called Singing From The Grave and credited to an artist by the name of Anna von Hausswolff. Dark, metallic, doom-laden Gothic chants, right? Like a modern day Nico or something, and probably with all sorts of occult and witchy references, too, what with "Hauss­wolff" sitting so close to "werewolf" and all. I have no doubt that the lady in question nurtured these connotations, even if the album sleeve, with its quasi-Pollockian sketchings, adds no direct evidence. Therefore, it is the first and foremost duty of any honorable reviewer to begin with the obvious: nope, not a single zombie was harmed during the recording and production of this album. Furthermore, von Hausswolff is Anna's real name (none of that «Lana Del Rey» crap in this story of artistic growth), and she is not even German, but Swedish. Though she does claim to be a fan of Burzum, but then again, who doesn't?

Although the lady's ambitions were clearly set on the international market from the start, given that she sings everything (with the exception of one short snippet) in English rather than Swedish, her debut album never got an international release — in 2010, it was too early, and later on, as she changed her style significantly, it was much too late. It did, however, make her a star in her native country, which was up to that time running rather low on talented singer-songwriters of the female persuasion that also happened to be aspiring for something more substantial than shallow pop glitz (although this is more of an assumption than factual knowledge on my part). The lady could compose, play (piano and organ mostly), sing, and even produce the artwork for her album (admittedly, the latter endeavor did not require too much talent), so here was a Swedish Kate Bush / Tori Amos / Fiona Apple / Joanna Newsom all rolled in one, and with an advantage, too, because neither of those four ever thought about singing from the grave. Well, except Kate in her ʽWuthering Heightsʼ incarnation, but that was way back when.

In the light of Anna's subsequent output, Singing From The Grave is the quintessential «teenage first effort», even though she was 24 when it came out. Her chief instrument is the grand piano, which she does not play with a lot of invention or dexterity, largely restricting herself to repetitive fugue-style chord runs that she probably had all figured out while practicing her classical pieces on the black and white. Her instrumental melodies are difficult to tell from one another and also tend to go on much longer than necessary even after you get that they are difficult to tell from another. Her lyrics, although not as ridden with clichés as your average romance/loss/redemption cycle, are not particularly insightful for those who want a fresh, 2010-worthy take on these mat­ters for their crash course in «Breakup 2.0». And her singing... well, it would not be totally inac­curate to call her a slightly lower-pitched equivalent of Joanna Newsom, at least at this early stage in her career.

This is, however, just the right point to roll the tape in the opposite direction: I like her singing more than that of Joanna Newsom. What Newsom does as a gratuitously irritating artistic mannerism, von Hauss­wolff does naturally — her voice is not particularly powerful, but she has a solid range, an infal­lible technique, and plenty of versatility: it is clear that her influences are much wider than Kate Bush-inspired art-pop, and also include country (watch out for the chorus of ʽAbove Allʼ), blues, and gospel (not that Kate Bush did not have some of these influences herself, but we are talking stereotypes here, people). At the same time, she strives to keep things reasonably simple, not considering herself above and beyond the concept of a vocal hook in the chorus; and largely (though not always) avoids direct manipulation, singing with just the right amount of detachment to not lose herself to the listener and not to overwhelm him. It does not usually take me much time to shoot down a pompously operatic or manneristic singer, but she does not count. At the end of the day, she is merely carrying on the tradition of grand old ladies like Sandy Denny or Annie Haslam, rather than doing this «I am going to sound very weird and mysterious because publicity» schtick.

As for the songs themselves, after a short while you might realize that, while not much of a pianist or an organist, she has a good instinct for seductive vocal modulation — already on the second song, ʽTrack Of Timeʼ, she is able to develop one single line ("you lose it all the time") into something epic. In ʽPillsʼ, she goes into a trance admitting that "I made love with the devil", and it is almost believable — the trance, I mean, not the devil part which is a very obvious hyper­bole. ʽAbove Allʼ, as I already said, makes me envision a collaboration with The Dixie Chicks or somebody like that, but the country waltz element is given a tragic sheen, as she seemingly recounts the last moments in the life of her grandmother. The most hysterical performance is in ʽLost At Seaʼ — the song that is most dependent on her higher range and, therefore, the most re­miniscent of Kate Bush, but also the most openly rocking number on here, and with awesome production that does indeed create a (slightly vaudevillian) illusion of a raging sea storm in which the protagonist's lover is supposed to be getting lost.

The culmination of all these broodings is the 10-minute epic ʽThe Bookʼ, which takes all that time to tell us that "I'm happy for what I found", that "I'm understanding more of me", and that "I will never turn back now". After a few listens, I finally got what it reminded me of — some of the piano chords sound almost directly lifted from The Smiths' ʽNever Had No One Everʼ, and even if that is just a coincidence, the brooding, broken-hearted atmosphere is still the same for both, except that von Hausswolff is willing to be more optimistic about the perspectives of going on (well, it's pretty hard to beat Morrissey in the pessimism department anyway). In any case, her performance is stellar — going from whisper to scream back to whisper back to scream, she gives a first-rate theatrical delivery. A small problem is that not a single ounce of the music really gives credence to the line about finding "a book about the happy way of living life", but let us count this as a small — and surmountable — problem indeed. I could also live without the atmospheric five-minute piano jam at the end (her little team does not have the means yet to create a suitably grand wall of sound), but that, too, is nitpicking.

I suppose that the record should be penalized for being monotonous and musically lazy (just how many of these two-chord piano runs is it possible to tolerate in one go?), yet I still give it a thumbs up — for what, I don't even properly understand myself. Some hooks, some first-rate singing, perhaps, and above all, this strange atmosphere of believability and a complete lack of superficial gimmickry. It just sounds like an honest record, that's all.


  1. "although this is more of an assumption than factual knowledge on my part"

    Definitely an assumption. Although I am not a fan of the genre, I am aware of a rather large number of (semi-)talented singer-songwriters of female persuasion in Sweden (and, to a lesser degree, in other Scandinavian countries). would say that in general the per capita incidence of musical talent there is probably higher than anywhere else on the planet.

  2. G.S's modest afterthought could be referring to multiple criteria (talented, female, singer-songwriters AND aspiring for something for more than shallow pop glitz). So, while his modesty is appropriate, the assertion (definitely an assumption) is backed up by even more hesitant language (aware of, in general, probably higher etc.) thereby countering it.

    So we can settle for "more of an assumption" which is what the original sentence intended :-)

    Me, I have no factual knowledge at all about any of this. Merely following the logical threads in the arguments, that's all.