Thus:Owls take experimentalism to its extremes on their debut album, the horrifically titled Cardiac Malformations. But it’s not only experimentalism; they also push the boundaries of sparseness, allowing songs to build and break uncomfortably on the back of a lone upright bass or a plunked piano. And at the centre of it all is the exquisite, achingly brilliant vocal performance of Erika Alexandersson, who follows the music in her head, regardless of what treacherous waters it may lead her to.
Cardiac Malformations is a distinctly Scandinavian album in its aesthetics: cold and bleak, but somehow fantastic in scope; lush and beautiful, but disconcertingly sad and often haunting. This is not to attempt to put a label on Thus:Owls, or their music. And it’s certainly not to box them into their little corner of Stockholm. But Cardiac Malformations defies categorisation at every other turn, so hopefully such a generalisation can be forgiven.
Alexandersson has the sort of voice that stops conversations. She is at once tough and hard, bristly and self-confident; but she often betrays a sort of shy, introverted undercarriage, something haunted and quivering just below the surface. She uses her impressive range to its absolute fullest, at turns sounding childlike (Climbing The Fjelds Of Norway), under demonic possession (A Volcano In My Chest), and operatic (the celestial closer, The Atlantic).
The instrumentalists provide a pitch perfect backdrop for Alexandersson’s theatrics. The arrangements vary from disconcertingly sparse (the bass-only first verse of Climbing The Fjelds Of Norway) to jazzy and upbeat (the walking bass and hand-claps of Sometimes) to dark and brooding with pounding angularity (Let Your Blood Run) to Straussian Alpine tone poems (My Thoughts Ain’t Lovely). The arrangements here are so impeccably crafted that form becomes secondary to feeling and mood supercedes melody.
The nearest Thus:Owls come to pop songcraft is the fantastic Climbing The Fjelds Of Norway, which encompasses the dichotomous relationship between childlike wonder and adult forlornness. Alexandersson sings: “So this is love. Nothing we ever could prepare for,” over angelic accompaniment. Heartbreaking. In stark contrast, A Volcano In My Chest is thick with mismatched discord, and Alexandersson brandishes her voice like a weapon with designs on inflicting blunt trauma.
Sometimes it’s cabaret jazz at its kitschy best, but Thus:Owls are not ones to rest on conventions. Even in the upbeat, handclapping setting, Alexandersson sings with bald-faced, transparent abandon: “I wanted to sing from my heart on your birthday party. This time, at least I tried to.” The Sun Is Burning Our Skin is all plinked pianos and startling juxtapositions: “The sun is burning our skin on your balcony. We speak in small voices, slightly cooled by our tears.” The album closer, The Atlantic, is a singularly cinematic experience, sweeping in its vision, and impressive in its scope.
Cardiac Malformations is not an easy listen, but its mood is nearly tangible and capable of permeating the emotional centres of its listener. Thus:Owls have a gift for transferring feelings through their music, and while the album is sinewy and woven with difficult – and often twitchily uncomfortable – moments, the payoff for climbing these particular fjelds is well worth the effort. Thus:Owls have made a wholly different sort of album, and one that’s so rich and nuanced that it’s sure to reward an infinite number of repeated listens.