Album Reviews

Silje Nes – Opticks

(FatCat) UK release date: 13 September 2010


If there’s a bundle of stereotypes preceding any singer-songwriter of Scandinavian extraction, it surely includes the following: glacial beauty, whispery vocals, tenderly picked guitars and perhaps a touch of glockenspiel or synth.�Silje Nes’s second album Opticks delivers all of the above, but that doesn’t diminish its thoughtful loveliness.�

Like Nes’s debut Ames Room, Opticks has a homemade feel – and, indeed, home is where it was made, painstakingly built from scratch by its multi-instrumentalist creator. Where Ames Room was a collection of disparate demo recordings, Opticks feels much more like a premeditated album, although the full extent of its craftsmanship takes several listens to emerge.

Nes is signed to the Brighton-based FatCat label, whose best-known alumni are Sigur R�s and Animal Collective, and like those artists she likes to marry pretty melodies to sonic friction.�Opener The Grass Harp sounds like a Belle and Sebastian song wrapped in Velvet Underground guitars; her vocals call to mind fellow blonde and sensitive-boy pin-up Isobel Campbell (though not, happily, fellow blonde Nico).�Sounds of the ocean add a very Nordic poignancy and offer a foretaste of the busy, ever-shifting textures explored on the album.

Silver Blue alternates seasick pulses of concertina with layers of warm guitar – the track’s closing line, “All I know is I must obey. Obey your fun and games”, reflecting its hypnotic spookiness. Hello Luminance is bathed in gorgeous Sufjan Stevens-style flute before suddenly swirling into backwards guitar and vocal echoes.�Levitation, placed at the album’s centre, is a neat illustration of the tension between Nes’s pop sensibilities and her love of noise and sonic oddity: it starts off as a synthy bossa nova before breaking down into thick coats of feedback.

The chorus of lead single Crystals has the album’s prettiest and most accessible melody. �While it fits perfectly well with the rest of the album, it is one of the only tracks with the cuteness to qualify for the category that, a few years back, might best have been described as “O.C. music”, after the show whose choice of musical accompaniment for the angst and wisecracks of Ryan, Seth, Summer, and Marissa launched the career of Imogen Heap and others.� Elsewhere, Nes is too emotionally inscrutable to be of much use as a heartstring-puller-for-hire, and she likes to get her songs dirty, even down to accentuating the squeaks and creaks of her home-recorded instruments.

The album’s title is taken from Isaac Newton’s 1704 work on the refraction of light, which makes it tempting to reach for refraction metaphors when describing this many-hued album. Nes’ dreamy, childlike murmur of a voice, while an essential part of the record’s charm, gives her melodies a very soft sell – especially in the lower register where her singing approaches speech – and it takes proper listening to bring the pretty hooks into focus.

The lyrics are still less distinct, with an occasional intriguing phrase bobbing to the woozy surface: “We’ll build the pyramids,” Nes sighs on Symmetry Of Empty Space. “We’ll leave them standing in the street.”�The mystery of the content and the intimacy of its delivery makes this a record that will wrap itself around the hearts of a few but is probably fated to go unnoticed by most.

Nes has previously attracted comparisons to Thom Yorke, but whereas Yorke’s solo work came with a huge audience already on board, Nes has a much harder task. It is almost as though she is making an effort to resist being lumped in as some featherweight Norwegian popstrel – as mentioned above, she does tick most of the qualifying boxes – by undercutting and obfuscating her more straightforwardly hooky moments.�But it seems more likely that the album’s distressed aesthetic is just her idiosyncratic way of expressing herself.� After all, real feelings tend to be more complex and contradictory than even The O.C. is capable of conveying.


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More on Silje Nes
Silje Nes – Opticks
Silje Nes – Ames Room