Review of Ólöf Arnalds New Album Sudden Elevation

Sudden Elevation will be relished both by admirers of Ólöf Arnalds’s crystalline voice, and by devotees of the Nordic modern-folk music associated with fellow Icelandic musicians Björk and Sigur Rós. The multi-instrumentalist’s new release follows her acclaimed second album Innundi Skinni (2010), which caught the attention of critics at Q magazine and earned her recognition from Mojo as one of their “most exciting people” of the year. As the first of her albums to be sung entirely in English, Sudden Elevation marks a change in the singer’s creative direction and will, undoubtedly, provide an impetus for wider appreciation. It is also her first experiment in creating a conceptually unified record: she worked on it without interruption, holed up in a seaside cabin in western Iceland.

There is a curious paradox to Arnalds’s music. Her hushed, fragile vocals and guitar accompaniment lend her songs an informal intimacy, as she draws the listener into her personal space and shares her sincere musings. But at the same time the combination of sparse textures with her spectral voice, creates a rather austere ambience, projecting a vision of her glacial Nordic environs, with its vast windswept landscapes, and crystal-clear lakes.

Björk’s description of Arnalds’s idiosyncratic voice as “somewhere between a child and an old woman” has become a much-used epithet for the singer, and for good reason. It summarizes the curious blend of trembling frailty and that distinctive “woolly” quality which is the essence of her tone. The otherworldliness of her voice has prompted comparisons with Kate Bush, but there is a delicate shyness to Arnalds’s voice which sets it apart from Bush’s.

The complex harmonic and contrapuntal twists in these songs attest to Arnalds’s rigorous classical training. But her textures always remain delicate, and her instrumentation bare. Voice and guitar are supplemented at times by the violin or charango (a South American lute), with occasional colour from keyboard and electric guitar (prominent on Onwards and Upwards). But they never detract from the clarity of her wandering vocal line and clear – if heavily accented – diction.

The strongest songs on the album are not the bold, upbeat tracks, but her hushed folk lullabies. Arnalds softly croons the title track, “This Sudden Elevation / Has swept me off my feet…”, to the gentle plucking of just her guitar, over which floats a melodic contour winding through folk-derived modal harmonies. Its unfussy lyricism is matched by the exquisite sensitivity of Return Again with its gentle keyboard accompaniment. The buoyant rhythms of German Fields and the livelier numbers lift us out of contemplative calm into a more traditional folk idiom – this playful lilting feel is felt particularly in Call it What You Want (which almost has the flavour of a Celtic reel), and Numbers and Names. Treat her Kindly stands out as one of the more instrumentally adventurous tracks, the only one to feature a string “pad”, while A Little Grim is one of the album’s gems, making a virtue of layered vocals, which form a chorus of interwoven motifs.

Ólöf Arnalds’s particular folk idiom benefits from repeated listening, and this album will be an acquired taste for many. But there is something truly enchanting about its honest, graceful, simplicity.

Sudden Elevation is released on 4 February on the One Little Indian label. Ólöf will play UK dates in March.

Rachel Coombes

Image courtesy of One Little Indian.