Album Reviews

Elena Setién – Unfamiliar Minds

(Thrill Jockey) UK release date: 28 January 2022

Elena Setién – Unfamiliar Minds For many of us, lockdown has been something of an out of body experience. Although viewed by some with rose-tinted glasses as a chance to ‘find ourselves’, bake enormous amounts of food and take part in online quizzes ad nauseam, the reality was rather more severe than the serenity those things would suggest. Uncertainty lay at the corner of every day; political and social recriminations were frequent and the sheer demand on our mental health is still only now being fully appreciated.

One listen to the new album from Elena Setién brings all those feelings back into sharp focus. Much of the music was in her thoughts before the pandemic, but the isolation – some of it glorious – has been the prism through which all of those thoughts have been directed.

Situation, the second track on Unfamiliar Minds, presents a sonic platform that illustrates the dual feelings of intimacy and abandonment. Intimacy is felt throughout the close, slow moving vocal, but abandonment lies in the musical details that look on from a considerable distance, as though afraid to get any closer. The middle of the song is unsettling, with a heated spoken exchange that cuts out as quickly as it arrived, leaving the listener disorientated. “Where could you have gone to?” coos Setién with a mixture of reverence and genuine disbelief, struggling to come to terms with a sudden loss. “The situation’s wrong – it’s been more than 24 hours”.

The music moves at a daringly slow pace, baring its soul at the slightest of volumes. Heightening this fragility is the electronic production, with tremulous, multi-tracked vocals, flickering string harmonics, disorientating ‘whooshes’ from unknown sources and undercurrents that you might expect to hear in one of Broadcast’s slower numbers. These feel like the ghosts of the pandemic, with unexpectedly surfacing feelings, revealing troubles the author is desperately trying to quell.

Throughout the Basque singer Setién writes confidently in English. “I heard a new song from the birds,” proclaims New, with her feathered friends – some of the unsung stars of lockdown – appearing in electronic form. In contrast Such A Drag details the days within the same four walls that offer little to no respite. “It’s such a drag, such a drag, such a drag, to be alone”, goes the monotoned and heartfelt writing.

Setién’s lyrics have their roots in experiences from the pandemic, but for two songs the poetry of Emily Dickinson is set. The interpretation is fresh, with unusual but clever word emphases, such as the multi-voice I Dwell In Possibility.

The entire album progresses at a stately tempo without percussion, occasionally bringing Beach House to mind in its refusal to rush. It is a strange and hypnotic out of body experience, much of its music flickering in the half light. Yet if the listener leans in close, they will find it works on two levels, confronting the darkness of which we are afraid, but also seeking the method to get us out of it and face the world again. At the end we emerge, blinking slightly, but safe in the knowledge that feeling vulnerable like this was OK in lockdown, and is again now. Elena Setién reveals herself to be a subtly powerful communicator, delivering vivid imagery of these truly strange times.

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Elena Setién – Unfamiliar Minds