On her second album Alle Snakker Sant (which translates as ‘they all speak the truth’), Norwegian singer-songwriter Siri Nilsen has crafted her own unique, sometimes wondrous and enthralling world. These delightfully delicate arrangements are rich in detail and nuance and, whilst undeniably often blessed with catchy hooks, still sound some distance removed from much popular music in the UK.
Nilsen often accompanies herself on the ukulele, an instrument that can sound touching and vulnerable, but also risks taking songs into dangerously twee territory. Nilsen unusually plays the instrument in a picking style (it’s much more frequently heard strummed), which imbues much of her music with an eerie, unusual quality. She is also remarkably adept at combining bright colours with subtle hints of darkness – this usually prevents this light, nimble music from becoming overly cute.
It also helps that she has worked in collaboration with other musicians here. Although it is meticulously arranged, much of Alle Snakker Sant also has something of an ensemble feel. Songs like Kort Evighet recall the microscopically detailed musical tapestries of Kathryn Calder or a St Vincent without the obsessive level of studio tinkering.
Nilsen’s music sounds striking because of the halogen brightness of her arrangements. The occasional intervention of both tuned and untuned percussion adds an additional, rarely heard colour to her sound, and her layered harmony vocals are frequently exquisite. There is usually a careful balance struck between broad sounds (lingering strummed chords or sustained piano arpeggios) and sounds with less sustain and more attack (her own ukulelee, lead guitar, stark vocals). It all blends together in a way that sounds effortless, but has clearly been very carefully mapped out.
The delicacy and breeziness of much of this music sometimes belies the album’s key themes. The title relates to Nilsen’s treatment of the battle between head, heart and gut when making important life decisions and a number of songs here address this conflict. Her oblique resolution lies in the album’s title – they all speak the truth. There are also songs in which she writes letters which are never answered and where she addresses the recurring human tendency to avoid our clearest needs. Only Skjotet (The Title Deed) really sounds entirely content (“I’m not searching anymore, for I have found gold”). Oddly, its combination of piano and slide guitar actually makes it sound like one of the album’s more reflective and melancholy moments.
Very occasionally, Nilsen’s brilliantly engineered balance slips and the results teeter perilously on that fine line between infectious and irritating. The album’s title track, in particular, feels that way – the one moment where it all feels a little like the musical equivalent of the organised fun of a work party. For most of the album, however, Nilsen is gracefully poised, charming and confident.