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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

REVIEW: Ólöf Arnalds - Sudden Elevation


Ólöf Arnalds 
Sudden Elevation
Release Date: February 2013
Label: One Little Indian

I've always been attracted to the word glide.  It's a motion we've all experienced, yet it comes in many forms.  The root of my fascination with gliding comes from the dichotomy of needing to conjure up energy in order to launch into a state of effortlessness and calm.  Be it slipping across ice, falling into a state of stability, or even enjoying the backyard childhood favorite slip n' slide, gliding is the most poetic of movements.  The body is no longer in control; previous action propels us forward, but nothing exists in the moment except for a state of bliss.  

I mention all of this because throughout Ólöf Arnalds' newest album, Sudden Elevation, one word kept popping into my head: glide.  There is a great energy and power inside Arnalds that bubbles up and pours out from her music, causing every moment on Sudden Elevation to conjure up that almost undefinable, yet all-so-familiar sensation of gliding... a moment of perfect peacefulness and beauty.

Growing up, my father used to take my brother and I to Canal Street in New York City to see all the knock-off watches, glasses, and DVDs.  It was a bizarre lesson in street smarts as we learned the subtle keys to discerning between an obvious fake Rolex and a passable one.  The big lesson was to look out for the second hand.  More expensive watches "sweep," while the obvious knock-offs "clicked" from second to second.  I became obsessed with the idea of a watch that had two second hands perfectly synced, one sweeping and one clicking.  The idea of two separate representations of the passage of time left me wanting to see these two movements co-exist.  I never saw such a watch, but just a few weeks ago, with the first listen of Sudden Elevation, I got to hear what those two opposing movements would sound like in tandem.  "German Fields," the album's gorgeous opening track, is exactly that: those two second hands working harmoniously to craft a special moment in songwriting.  A quickly plucked guitar "sweeps" while short, interrupted vocal hits "click" away, all of it setting the perfect backdrop for Arnalds commanding, yet gentle voice.  

Most critics are quick to highlight that Sudden Elevation is the first album featuring Arnalds singing in English rather than mixing in Icelandic, her native tongue.  For me, this is of no consequence since Arnalds, regardless of language, uses her voice as a shifting instrument.  An aggressive calming of sorts floats above her beautiful melodies.  It's there in "German Fields," and it introduces the listener to the album's gliding tone, an initial push that sets us off in blissful motion.  The best part is that we never have to land; the motion is effortless and continuous from start to finish.

This isn't to say that the album is repetitive or devoid of surprises.  The power of each individual track comes from Arnalds' exploration of the various ways of manipulating and communicating a singular feeling.  After the brisk "German Fields," she slows things down with the contemplative "Bright And Still," a slow glide that conjures up the pace and mood of an early Vashti Bunyan song.  Once the listener accepts the idea of Arnalds' journey through the various forms of gliding - fast, slow, patient, suspended, etc - they can sink into the unique talent that Arnalds presents.  

It's a critic's job to guide a reader through all of the little moments and standout tracks on a given album.  Sudden Elevation is one of those rare treats where laboring over specific track after track does nothing to communicate the power of the record.  The album is a singular idea, and a presentation of Arnalds' unique talents.  From start to finish, every track just works, making Sudden Elevation one of the more satisfying listens in recent memory.  I'm not saying that everyone who hears this record will make the specific connections that I've made, but if you think about the moments where you've experienced graceful movement suspended by no outside forces whatsoever, you'll be able to sink into these lush songs and cherish the world of music that Arnalds crafts as only she could.  

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