Ane Brun’s ninth album lands barely a month after her eighth, but there’s little chance of listener fatigue: How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow is a very different record from her last. After The Great Storm was a sweeping and cinematic affair; in contrast this is a stripped back record that harks back to Brun’s more acoustic early work, yet also steers a new direction.
There’s little in the way of rhythm section to be found here; instead the instrumentation is kept largely to the higher registers, complementing Brun’s voice beautifully, and the pace is placid. The only track that’s anything more than featherweight is Gentle Wind Of Gratitude, in which little ripples of bass push the song along gracefully. And the liveliest is Song For Thrill And Tom: pizzicato strings make for a breezy feel, but it doesn’t attempt to break a sweat.
However, the strongest songs here are those that are piano-led. Opening track Last Breath is worth the price of the record alone. It provides the album’s title, all the more poetic when encountered in the grief-stricken context of the song: “I didn’t understand how beauty holds the hands of sorrow / How today can outshine tomorrow.” The production here is wonderful, with crystal clear dynamics and a real contrast between intimate and sublime. At times you can hear the sustain pedal of the piano moving up and down, and almost feel the hammers striking strings; but when the orchestral latter part of the song builds to a climax the sound is close to symphonic.
It’s followed by Closer, a more pared back song that’s closer to being a traditional piano ballad, but no less beautiful. Towards the back end of the album, Lose My Way (featuring Dustin O’Halloran) is another highlight: the simple piano passage that’s repeated through the verses is given real gravitas by the subtle orchestral arrangements that embrace it, and by Brun’s vocals, which tremble at times and then fracture with the melismatic refrain “It’s you and me”.
The arrangements suit the themes of the album well. Both of Brun’s new albums were written following the death of her father in 2016, and while After The Great Storm spans a broad emotional range, How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow is more elegiac and reflective. Even Song For Thrill And Tom, a love story about friends of Brun’s, is tempered with grief when one learns of the passing of one half of the couple.
The album ends with an alternate version of Don’t Run And Hide, a song that was first heard on After The Great Storm. On that album it was a smooth pop song with a trip-hop bent, but here it’s reimagined as a slower and more vulnerable piece. Don’t Run And Hide was the first song Brun wrote for this pair of albums and it’s clear that she has lived with it long enough to be able to bring out two very different sensibilities in it. The piano version that closes How Beauty Holds The Hand Of Sorrow might easily have been kept back as a bonus track for the future, and its inclusion here is a really nice touch: it’s a reminder that despite their contrasting moods, Ane Brun’s latest two albums are wonderfully intertwined, both thematically and musically.