Friday, February 5, 2010

Shadows in Iceland - Emilíana Torrini

I thought it was amazing enough that a place as little as Iceland was able to produce not just one outstanding talent, in Björk, but the fascinating (and yet-to-be-blogged-about-by-me) Sigur Rós as well. But then when Marty W told me a few weeks ago that he had been to a wonderful gig the night before, and described Emilíana Torrini who, it seemed, sometimes sang and danced about on stage like a little electronic Björk, and sometimes serenaded her audience like a Nordic woodsprite, I began to think that there might be no end to the musical treasures that Iceland has to offer.

Emilíana Torrini has mainly produced fairly boppy, electronica-type music, even writing a song for Kylie Minogue but, when she was engaged to sing the closing, and heart-wrenchingly poignant, 'Gollum’s Song' at the end of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, her audience heard another side to her talent, and it’s this side that is explored in every nook and cranny of her 2005 album, Fisherman’s Woman.

The album’s opener ‘Nothing brings me down’ has a wistful, pensiveness about it – sleepy music that, even though it’s beautiful and even though it speaks of simplicity and happiness, feels fragile as if you could break it just by listening to it too closely.

The music on Fisherman’s Woman is intimate, soft, sounding on the one hand like songs that have been passed down through centuries of Icelandic folklore and yet at the same time new and spontaneous, as if they are being created as they are sung, springing not from notes on the page, but from somewhere deep within Torrini’s heart.

Whether it’s the sad feeling of missed opportunities in ‘Life saver’ where a guitar strums gently in what sounds like a lonely creaking boat rocking in the river; or the sparse, minimalist ‘Honeymoon child’ where the music falls like tears as it watches “a little dove fly away”; or the shy, tentative steps towards hope out of grief in the frail flow of ‘Today has been OK’, to the soft tinkle of a glockenspiel, these songs seem to all be sung in the shadows of loss.

And they are. Fisherman’s Woman was Torrini’s first album after the death of her partner some years before and, in fact, the album’s title track is actually based on a letter that she wrote to him just after he died, where she imagines him to be a fisherman out at sea, as she waits for him, with meditative vocals and a melancholy piano.

But the album’s absorption in loss perhaps reaches its darkest moment in the funereal ‘Thinking out loud’, where Torrini’s voice moans and weeps, heartbroken, in a song that is a sad mirror to the opener’s optimism with sad memories of simple things, where the smell of lavender and tar “brings me down”.

This could be the album’s final word, but we know from the unbreaking beauty of its music that it believes too much in light coming through the shadows to allow things to end there. And so we come to ‘Serenade’, which tells us that “the dark finds ways of being engraved in the light”, in a love song to the dawn: “the morrow will heal the night so” – it’s a healing that allows its wounds to remain, because “the heart bears indentations of yesterday’s hurting child”. It’s a beautiful and reassuring image – telling us, it seems, that grief never leaves us entirely and yet somehow we manage to bear it, even to embrace it, and to move on.

But the music here is just as fragile, just as vulnerable, as it ever was and, in songs as intimate as these, it is sometimes hard to know whether the music is comforting you, or you’re comforting it.

But that’s the bond that Emiliana Torrini creates with you in Fisherman’s Woman and, if you let yourself sink into it, you will find it to be an incredible experience, as if you have been trusted with something very, very personal, and very, very precious.

I look forward to the next new and interesting talent for me to discover from within the shores of Iceland.

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