Sóley Ups The Ante in Ask The Deep

It’s been a long wait, but Sóley‘s second studio album Ask The Deep is out, and man is it good!

There must be something in the water in Iceland, as its small population just can’t stop yielding absurd amounts of talented musicians to today’s pop music scene. Among them is Sóley. Formally the pianist and backing vocalist of the Icelandic indie-folk band Seabear, her first solo work emerged as the EP Theatre Island in 2010, which she followed up with her first studio album We Sink in 2011. The album was met with much praise, and established quite a different approach to Seabear’s slightly more upbeat style.  

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Sóley’s piano made its way from Seabear into her solo work, and most of the time it functions as the backbone to her music. There’s a dreamy tone to We Sink, and somewhere it is also a bit hollow and unsettling. The tone is consistent, yet not one song sounds entirely like the other. Her choice of percussion differs each time, and the album is layered with an ever changing array of beat and organic sound effects. Sóley‘s method becomes apparent in her live shows, in which we see her make great use of loop stations and pedals to create a layered soundscape with few instruments. Praise must also be given to Inga Birgisdóttir for the album artwork of We Sink, as it captures the album’s atmosphere perfectly. The sepia-colored portraits of Sóley capture the light but eerie essence of her music.

Now, four years later, we finally have a new full length studio album. The album artwork is perhaps a tad more disturbing than it was last time, but the sound of the album has gone in the opposite direction. It is much more dynamic. The volume has been cranked up on a few of the songs, and that is great to hear. Sóley‘s enchanting voice is audible as ever, but the sound of her eerie piano has retreated into the background. In its place we hear more bass and more sound effects. The gaps that once existed between Sóley‘s voice, her piano, and the instrumentation have been filled. The result is a sound that is unmistakably hers, but there’s more weight to it, and overall this makes the music more moving.

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There’s always been something inherently funny about the contrast between the slightly unsettling tone of Sóley‘s music and lyrics and her extremely endearing on-stage persona: the timid girl, clad in a thick jumper and a pair of glasses half the size of her face, casually singing about murdering clowns, or dancing around in a dress she made from a bunch of squashed birds. I’m happy to see that this has remained unchanged in the past four years, as evidenced in one of her more recent performances on KEXP: “[Æeventr] is about a man who was buried alive in Brazil. It’s true!… It’s horrible!” Clearly, any eeriness that might have departed from the sound is still ever present in her lyrics.

Sóley‘s live performances reveal a lot about her songs. With the loops all being done live, they tend to be slightly stripped down versions of the songs we hear on her albums. In the live version of “I’ll Drown” for instance, she simply imitates the percussion by looping her voice. I especially enjoy it when Sóley strips her songs down to simply her voice guided by her piano. Especially for a song like “Halloween”, I think it benefits greatly from showing its bear skin in that way. Whereas the piano is hardly audible in the album version, the live version of “Halloween” as seen on the Berlin Sessions shows so clearly how Sóley‘s songs originate. It is a different, even more moving sound. Perhaps she should release an album with some acoustic versions of her songs. I’d listen the hell out of that!

Ask The Deep has a fresh new sound to it, yet retains everything I liked from We Sink. Just keep doing what you’re doing, Sóley! the beasts will be listening!

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