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Ólöf Arnalds

Sudden Elevation

[One Little Indian; 2013]

By ; February 11, 2013 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

It wouldn’t surprise me if, like myself, many non-Icelanders came across Ólöf Arnalds from her involvement with múm or her familial relation to the increasingly appealing composer Ólafur Arnalds. One of the qualities that set Ólöf Arnalds apart from either of those roots was that her music, her voice, and her style were distinct and different from what the others were offering. While múm struggled in a purely acoustic environment, she was fingerpicking through her own songs at such a casual pace it took a few listens to just take in the core instrumentation of her debut album Við Og Við whereas comparisons to Ólafur only went as far as the fact that they both boasted a pristine, educated sheen in their compositions, but Ólöf still seemed either ahead or to the side with the natural peace she created with her songs.

Since her debut, Ólöf has seen a deserved rise into the limelight. Her second album, 2010’s Innundir skinni was wider in scope, with more textures, songs sung in English, and even a guest spot from Björk, all while still coming off as something modest. It would be easy and understandable to assume that from there Ólöf may well have desired to become bigger and spread her wings more, however, her new album, Sudden Elevation, is something of a dialling back while also opening the doors and windows of her music to allow everything to breathe easier than it ever has before. Sudden Elevation is her first album entirely in English, and is the result of an escape to a seaside cottage to focus herself on her songs and the concept of the album itself, detailing the way tracks would ebb and flow. As a result she’s created arguably her best work to date.

For the most part, Sudden Elevation is a work of solitude, isolation, and a kind of simplicity. All the tracks find Ólöf playing her guitar, with a few additional instrumental touches here and there, and admittedly with all the lyrics in English it’s all the more easy to become enamoured by her performances (for someone who speaks very, very little Icelandic, at least). Her tales read like old stories passed on through generations, telling of life in a remote sort of environment: the passing on of an old relative (“German Fields”); becoming enraptured by love (“Bright and Still”); finding escape in independence from others and society around (“Number and Names”), all in an attempt to become truly happy. It’s Ólöf’s gentle, calm outlook that eases you along with the songs, soothing any tension. On “German Fields” she ponders momentarily, “Why?/ Oh well/ Some things remain a mystery” as drums are brushed alongside a lightly bobbing guitar melody, like a driving force keeping one’s mind occupied after a sorrowful experience. Sometimes you just have to accept that life happens in the way it does, and it’s not worth letting life and the others in life suffer because of this.

Her outlook never becomes tediously chirpy or overbearing, either, which adds to the refreshing side of the record’s appeal. On “A Little Grim” she sings that “things will turn out some way/ Better, worse or in unexpected ways,” not choosing to deal in misplaced optimism. Even when addressing her (or her character’s) relationship she doesn’t even pause when saying “our love will turn out some way/ Better, worse or not together.” It recalls Jens Lekman, albeit without the wryness or lamenting, but both seem on the same level, especially when Ólöf admits that feelings “change like the weather,” much like Lekman explored on “I Know What Love Isn’t”.

It’s Ólöf’s voice that really captures your attention, though. When Björk described it as “somewhere between a child and an old woman” she was kind of on the money, but to put it in a more relatable way, it might be best described as Joanna Newsom with Björk’s accented phrasing. Really, though, it’s its own organic creature, and Sudden Elevation proves this, as she comfortably moves between gentle cooing, spiralling softly downwards on a single syllable, or multi-tracking her voice evoking a sense of playfulness. The album does take a slight dip towards the end, as it slows down to a close, aiming for a perfect kind of stillness (finishing on a song called “Perfect,” no less). The first two thirds offer the best material here, utilizing those aforementioned additional instruments. Most of the time they pass you by, but they’re always there, adding to the track in a way that’s seamless. An accordion slips into the chorus of “Numbers and Names” and sticks around afterwards, waltzing around the song’s lyrical melodies while the minor piano chords on the delicate and sorrowfully celestial “Return Again” pave the way for a brief, but gorgeous string section, creating what may well be one of the most beautifully sad songs of the year.

The title, Sudden Elevation, could very easily be taken a little too literally by those coming across Ólöf for the first time, assuming she’s referring to increasing attention that’s coming her way. And in a way, there’s a possibility that she may be making a titular ode to that, but the pace at which her music generally moves, and the studied, careful way in which she sings and plays, seems to cast her outside of any huge spotlight. Even though she’s playing to a larger audience now, and has more (global) fans than five or six years ago (Sudden Elevation was funded by a Kickstarter-like campaign), she still sounds like she’s moving at her own careful and casual velocity. After all, this is an artist who sought retreat to create an “album,” “trying to see the record as a conceptual whole, keeping a certain order of songs in mind as we recorded.” If this is her reaction to fame, then I hope Ólöf grows even more successful with this release, in hope that she’ll create another album as pleasant and palliative as Sudden Elevation.


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