The quirky and mysterious sounds of the Icelandic folk singer’s last album to date.
Ólöf Arnalds is, unfairly perhaps, always doomed to be seen as ‘quirky’ and, as such, forever to be in the shadow of her better-known ‘quirky’ countrywoman in a world where everyone is looking for something different but is nevertheless ever-keen to stereotype artists by where they are from – we already have one eccentric female singer from Iceland, the attitude goes, so why do we need another? This particular Icelandic singer-songwriter has long had a sound that sits between countrywoman Bjork – if only because that accent is very much something that we’ve associated with the former Sugar Cube for so long – and the high-pitched folk wailing of Joanna Newsom, ensuring that it will never find much traction within the mainstream. This is not easy listening by any stretch of the imagination. Yet her 2014 album Palme, her fourth, saw Arnalds taking her music in a slightly new direction – not radically or in some forced manner, but nevertheless making a progression away from the sound of the past, to take in a more electronic feel. It was also her most collaborative album to date, allowing other musicians, songwriters and producers to have input into her previously fairly insular world. It might’ve been an experiment – and at 30 minutes long, it sat somewhere between traditional album length and EP, suggesting that it was possibly a transitional piece – but the resulting songs were a collective work of some eccentric beauty. It’s arguably her best work, but also – so far – her last recorded work. Her website still lists this as a new release and she seems to have slipped into obscurity since its release – though as of May 2023, there is a new release on the horizon. Clearly, she doesn’t rush things.
Before we discuss the album proper, a word on the EP that proceeded it, Ólöf Sings, which was recorded as a stop-gap while the album was completed and consists of five extraordinarily well-chosen cover versions. This is as stripped down as it could be – Arnalds accompanied by an acoustic guitar, breathing new life into familiar tunes like Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man, Bob Dylan’s She Belongs to Me, and a breathtakingly brilliant medley of Springsteen’s I’m on Fire and Gene Clark’s With Tomorrow, which I’ve long loved from the version performed by This Mortal Coil. Also included are Arthur Russell’s Close My Eyes, and Caetano Veloso’s Maria Bethania.
The mark of a great cover version is when an artist can take a song, disassemble it and then recreate it in a way that brings a new meaning to it, without destroying whatever it was that made the song work initially. Arnalds manages to do that on all five tracks here, creating original, intimate renditions that are charming, unsettling, heartbreaking and uplifting, often all at once. It’s pretty astonishing.
But back to the album that followed it, Palme.
Arnalds rather dialed back her delivery for this record, which might make it more approachable for people used to more conventional singing styles – her child-like voice has a more gentle sound to it here than on other records, and this is matched by a more ethereal, haunting sound, never quite as much in evidence as on the title track, which floats across your mind like a dream. A more produced album than previous works, the sound feels more substantial here and the songs benefit from this sense of fullness.
That’s not to say that this album was a compromised attempt at commerciality. This was still very much the work of an artist who occupies a unique musical place (and seriously – the above artist comparisons, to whom we could inevitably and perhaps lazily add Kate Bush, are little more than a signpost. This is not a derivative sound in the slightest). It’s also an album that, while not overtly conceptual in nature, seems very much like a whole piece. So while tracks like Patience surprise with an almost traditional soft rock instrumentation (immediately thrown off balance by the album’s most upfront vocal), they don’t feel as though they have been randomly included. Everything here has its place, and like the best albums, you might be able to cherry-pick single tracks to listen to, but you won’t be happy listening to the whole thing out of sequence. It’s a carefully constructed listening experience and is best enjoyed as a whole piece.
This is an album that is packed with musical experimentation, yet awash with infectious melodies and infused with a sense of the traditional. Tracks like Half Steady, with its mix of traditional instrumentation and electronic dance beats, sound like the sort of thing Kate Bush perhaps should be doing now. Soft Living has the most traditional folky sound to it and is so sweet that you’ll probably develop cavities just listening to it, while Han Grete is as quiet and reflective as anything you could hope for. Hypnose has a moodier feel and delivers an almost eerie sense of the strange and beautiful. And that could be a description for the album as a whole, a romantic, wistful, and sometimes melancholic, sometimes celebratory work that is hard to resist.
Some records capture a certain season, and I would suggest that Palme, despite what might initially seem like a summery lightness, is an album that will come into its own in the winter months. The music has a warmth and intimacy that seems made for snow-swept evenings, best enjoyed by a firelight with a mug of mulled wine at hand. The whole album shimmers with a certain sort of magic and mystery that is entirely charming and hard to resist. It manages to be lushly deep and yet sparse and personal simultaneously, which is no mean feat. And the music is infectious – the relatively short running time ensures that it leaves you wanting more, and I found myself immediately returning to the start twice after listening.
I suspect that ‘Icelandic folk’ will always be a step too far for a lot of people outside that country to even contemplate, and certainly Arnalds’ voice is not going to speak to everyone. But this is that rarest of things – a record that manages to progress an artist’s sound without losing the essence of what made that sound so great to begin with. And for those of you who are open to music that might not be like anything you’ve heard before and that will refuse to leave you once you’ve heard it, this will prove the ideal launchpad from which to explore the rest of her recordings. Here’s hoping that the long-overdue new album lives up to the promise of this one.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!