Album Review: I Break Horses – Warnings

[Bella Union; 2020]

The Stockholm-based duo I Break Horses may have kept a low profile in the six years since the release of their second album Chiaroscuro, but Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck never meant to stay away this long. As the primary creative force behind the project (with Balck taking more of a backseat, providing some lyrical inspiration and percussion), Lindén’s drive to create their third album grew out of soundtrack sketches. She found herself stalled by failed collaborations, stints in different recording studios and the devastating blow of losing an early version of the record in a hard drive crash. Warnings was born out of what came next, and is the sort of richly detailed listen that speaks to the value of perseverance.

Since releasing their debut album Hearts in 2011, I Break Horses have shied away from repeating themselves musically or thematically. The foreboding nature of the title Warnings suggests a move into darker territory on their third album. That may not be immediately apparent on opening track “Turn”, which gradually unfolds over an elegiac musical backing, but the darkness undeniably comes through in its lyrics, which paint the picture of a crumbling relationship as the song dips and swells, stretching to nine purposeful minutes.

Lindén and Balck are comfortable giving these songs space to breathe. This remains true even when they dial things back, as on the suitably nocturnal and emotionally raw “I Live at Night”, or the bare-bones closing track “Depression Tourist”, which has its straightforward a capella nature warped by the surprising addition of vocoder into something otherworldly.

The pair are still most at home creating nuanced, layered work that practically drips with melody and urgency. There’s an overarching cinematic quality to these 12 tracks, which makes sense, given that Warnings started life as an instrumental suite.

Neither is it a surprise that Lindén returned to that source of inspiration when remaking it – it certainly benefits from being listened to as a complete piece of work, broken up by three brief field recordings at crucial points in the album’s running order. “I’ll Be the Death of You” is sandwiched between two of them and is an early highlight, its juddering synths creating a sense of palpable tension that’s punctuated by a steady groove, building to a moment of cathartic release around the three-minute mark that is all the sweeter when set against its lyric sheet. That sort of contrast is what the record thrives on, as it builds a world for the listener to get lost in. Whether it’s the widescreen, propulsive synth-pop of “Neon Lights” or the slow-burning heartbreak of “Baby You Have Travelled For Miles Without Love in Your Eyes”, the clarity of Lindén’s musical vision is apparent from the album’s first note to its last.

The epic “Death Engine” soars to the album’s peak, its affecting melodic flourishes masking arguably the record’s darkest lyric; specifically written in response to the attempted suicide of one of Lindén’s close friends, it raises the issue of depression and suicide among young people, its title referring to the cycle of despair that many find themselves in. This lyrical starkness and musical lushness combine on “Death Engine” to create a sense of desperate euphoria that thrills as much as it unsettles. It’s the high point of an album that rewards repeated, close listening.

Warnings is a real grower; for every moment of instant gratification here, there’s another that requires more work. The more time you invest in I Break Horses’ latest work, the more you get out of it, which is fitting – perseverance was required to finish the album in the first place, and it’s also what the listener needs to understand it. It’s time well spent.