Anna Von Hausswolff
Fat Possum Records
Released July 9, 2013
Making sentient albums and coloring them with distinct personalities that incite a vast range of emotions upon every listen is, if done successfully, a tricky, but rewarding artistic attempt. Some of these albums, like Planningtorock’s overlooked debut album Have It All, are extroverts — they reach out to you with their lovable eccentricities embodied in their lyrics and music, while giving their essence to you. Other ones, like Björk’s album Vespertine, are introverts — these absorb and isolate you with their slowly-unraveling and unreachable sounds, while luring your essence and then trapping it within their realm. And then there are those free-roaming spirits, like Anna Von Hausswolff’s newest album Ceremony, that simply take you on an unpredictable journey, enriched with both mysterious and tangible emotions, while offering you a taste of vicarious memories.
Entangled in a web of dark tunes, Von Hausswolff’s captivating voice, and themes inspired by stories of love, death and loss, Ceremony is an album that challenges the listener to more than just a casual listening experience. This is not, however, caused by anything dissonant or unappealing within the music, but rather by the vast — and therefore often rewardingly overwhelming — range of emotions presented in the lyrics and progressive, yet charmingly nostalgic melodies. Interestingly enough, the emotional readiness needed to embark on the experience of listening to this album seems to be of paramount importance when exploring Von Hausswolff’s music for the first time, because it is the only way to grab the front seat during the journey and fully understand the nuances of her music.
The opening tracks, “Epitaph of Theodor” and “Deathbed”, set the album’s tone with their enchanting and hypnotic sounds of Von Hausswolff’s trademark incantation medium — the pipe organ. Ambitiously, but ever so successfully, she glazes the organ’s sounds in “Deathbed” with the heavy sounds of electrical guitars, which transforms the initial, instrumental, church-like atmosphere into an almost gruesome and inescapable impasse. And, just when “Deathbed” seems to approach its sensory zenith, Von Hausswolff’s voice elegantly steps in for the first time, singing in a bird-like intonation: “Will you take back, take back, what you said?” The rapid transition from a morose and sacred universe into an idyllic and folk-inspired fairyland continues from “Deathbed” into “Mountains Crave,” one of the more placid and assuring tracks on the album.
The interplay between these two disparate moods does not cease — “No Body” besieges the album with its horrifying tunes, ranging from screeches to machine-like sounds, which allude to mental suffering, while the tracks like “Red Sun,” “Sun Rise,” and “Ocean” restore the album’s calmness.
One of the most touching and numbing tracks, “Harmonica,” dedicated to Von Hausswolff’s grandfather, very openly addresses the theme of death, and exposes one of the album’s core themes — Van Hausswolff’s personal life and memories. Backed with hunting vocals, stirring percussions, and simple but emotionally inclusive verses “He left me in a day / He left me in a very strange way,” “Harmonica” is the epitome of the singer’s mastery of musical storytelling.
Even though it is an atypical record, strongly characterized by vivid imagery rather than the conventional combination of music and lyrics, Ceremony is far from being unprecedented. Nevertheless, this does not undermine its quality, because the artistry of this album lies within its sincere personality, carefully crafted and brought to life by the artist herself.
And, above all, Von Hausswolff’s unrestricted openness and cordial invitation to the world of her memories define this album not just as a musical attempt, but as an experience.