Album Review: Sibille Attar – A History of Silence

[PNKSLM; 2021]

It took over half a decade, but Sibille Attar is finally marching to the beat of her own drum. After the release of her 2012 and 2013 debut EP and album (The Flower’s Bed and Sleepyhead respectively), the Swedish artist found herself in a limbo of sorts: critical and popular acclaim came her way, including a nomination for Best Newcomer at the Swedish Grammys, but yet she felt adrift and discontent. Falling out of love with music, it would be some five years until Attar released new material.

Signed to a smaller label (PNKSLM Recordings), Attar’s Paloma’s Hand EP came out in 2018, and it both felt like a purge of pent-up ideas as well as a reset button. Still a little flashy and with a little sheen, it was the start of Attar taking complete control of her music. “I need to get out of this place,” she sang somewhat tellingly at one point on the EP.

Her new album, A History of Silence, is this new creation process completed; Attar wrote, recorded, mixed, and produced all 10 tracks here, bringing in friends for additional instruments, but under specific direction from Attar herself. Consequently, A History of Silence has a distinct homespun quality about it, a sound that feels like a complete immersion into the pools of thought in Attar’s own head.

Structurally there isn’t a huge shift from Attar’s earlier days. She’s still making music with a particular bent to it that never quite adheres to expected dynamics of indie pop – but there’s definitely less sheen and more space for excess. Tracks wander into asides that can derail the momentum and energy of the album completely, like the almost two-minutes of brass band at the end of “1997” or the divergence into French lyrics and spoken word on opening track “Hurt Me”. They aren’t intrinsically bad moments, but are examples of Attar leaning more into personal indulgences and evidence that a co-producer might not have been such a bad thing.

But Attar is making the music she wants to make, and for that A History of Silence has to be given credit. Sure, when the discordant recorders come in thick and the pitched-down vocals start seeping heavily into the mix, it feels like you’re listening to someone describe and act out an elaborate dream they had. But there’s still an almost childish wonder that is very likeable about the whole thing. The crude details always crop up and remind you that Attar is working for herself and for her ends.

Magic flashes do emerge throughout. The moment the saxophone suddenly appears on “Why u Lookin'”, riding off the end of a sung note is an instance of unexpected bliss, while the baggy clatter of percussion on opening track “Hurt Me” shows attention to rhythmic detail. The Alvvays-like melancholy of “Life is Happening Now” feels like Attar bending at the knees to a greater power in order to let her trauma go so she can appreciate all that is around her in the present. While sometimes Attar might flit and flirt around a song’s melody (for better or worse), it does make the times when everything locks into place all the easier to appreciate.

Despite its sometimes handcrafted exterior, Attar sounds like she’s wrestling and purging demons of her past here. “It’s about accepting loss of power, changing expectations, and getting rid of some heavy baggage,” Attar said when talking with deliberate vagueness about the album – she even considered titling the album A History of Violence “because in many ways, the album is like a violent attempt to tell my own story when I’ve been silenced.”

There seems to be allusions of past misdeeds and even past abuse lurking in the lyrics. “It’s not right / But it happened / And it’s never going to go away,” she tells herself on “1997”. Attar is always trying to leave history behind her, a theme which crops up throughout. On the flourescent “Why u Lookin'” she questions, “Why you looking at the past? / It ain’t ever coming back.” Her take on Madonna’s “Oh Father” fits in nicely here, its yearning for meaning and reason for past sins threading a line between Attar’s own experiences.

It may take a few listens, but Attar does still have a way of slipping a hook into your head thanks to her forthright and unabashed delivery. Sure, the heavy reliance on reverberating drums or the juxtaposition of tight playing from external musicians against Attar’s more ragged approach might not leave a positive impression on some. But highlights are there to pick out, be it the downtrodden, lonely balladry of “Go Hard or Go Home”, or the hypnotic, starry synths and strings bleeding together to form a mystical landscape on centrepiece “Dream State”.

If you can bend your ear to Attar’s point of view then you might find moments of joy here. The title of the song “Hard 2 Love” is telling, as is its delivery. Beginning on a flush march of recorders and clattering, reverberated drums, the chorus of “Baby, I’m hard to love” drops every other element out to be sung solo. It doesn’t seem to fit at first, but when Attar starts adding vocal harmonics and lets a simple guitar iteration of the chorus melody play her out, it becomes one of the album’s more simple and pleasing moments. It might take a little work (and sometimes you are better not to pick it all apart), but you might just find something to like in A History of Silence. Either way, Attar is marching to her own drum, and she will continue on with or without you.