For some reason, probably having to do with their Nordic good looks and diminutive statures, the women of Northern Europe in rock and roll are always graded on some kind of cute factor. When Björk debuted with the Sugarcubes, yet moreso with her Debut, the stories were all about her elfin qualities. She was a pixie diva, cute and precious, causing both boys and girls to go into a high-pitched swoon over her accent. The same held true for the blond Swedish princess Nina Persson, now dark haired, but equally beautiful. Her songs with the Cardigans pleading with American listeners to “love me, love me” were like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course we love you, you Nordic model of gorgeousness! Funnily enough, in the same place that the Cardigans made their big American splash, the Baz Luhrmann Romeo & Juliet soundtrack, so too did another Swedish songstress, the even higher voiced and more diminutive Stina Nordenstam. Her “Little Stars” was the first song I ever heard from her (as with most people), and I was immediately hooked.
It’s easy to see, at first glance, why the Cardigans became so popular with “Lovefool,” while Nordenstam languished in relative American obscurity with “Little Stars.” The former is a hooky pop smash, tailor made for radio play, with simple choruses that stick in the brain for weeks on end. The latter was a distorted vocal whispery lullaby, not exactly something you’d want to play at the junior high dance. But more sophisticated listeners will be drawn to the more complex melodies of Nordenstam, particularly with her new (at least new to the States, having been released in 2004 overseas) album, The World is Saved.
The album’s title is somewhat tragic in that the songs are drenched in sadness and despair. Revolving around a broken affair with a married man, each track seems to hint at a desperate and downtrodden woman who is bitter and resentful about her current situation. To complement these feelings and emotions, each song is extremely spare, simply the voice of Nordenstam and some accompanying strings. So, for those who need comparison, it’s closer to Björk’s Homogenic than to Post in style, but the opposite in substance. One look at the album’s cover and tracklist leads you to the conclusion that this is dark, dark, dark. The cover features Nordenstam standing in the snow in front of a large house, which is sheathed in shadow. Clouds hover above the darkened house, which has one lone dim light in the window above her head. Song titles include “Get On With Your Life,” “Winter Killing,” “The Morning Belongs to the Night,” and “The End of a Love Affair.”
“Winter Killing” is the song that holds most of the keys to the album as a whole. In it, the narrator leaves the city to not get in the way of her lover’s marriage. The chorus repeats “You’re safer with me here” before she sings, “And you there.” At the end the people are reversed, showing that she is safer away from him as well. Every song drips with hurt feelings, regret and sorrow over the love affair. The arrangements are completely appropriate to the themes, as the spare strings seem to only hover in the background, giving Nordenstam a canvas on which to paint the outpourings of her emotions. Ah, but there’s hope, of course. Before the three bonus tracks which appear on the end of the album, which by the way are even closer to Björk’s music as they feature electronic beats added to the string mix, there is the song “The End of a Love Affair.” While the title is bleak, the last verse belies its darkness.
I take your number off the phone
Now I’m on my own
The good days will come
I just need the time
Despite her Nordic pixie good looks and high pitched breathy voice, Stina Nordenstam has some dark secrets. She’s laid them all out for us to see in her album, The World is Saved. There is no plea to “love me, love me” although it is implied after the fact, and there is no “possibly, maybe” here. It’s definitely an affair that’s over and done with. This is one album from the north that might defy the “cute factor.”
Joni Mitchell- Both Sides Now
Emiliana Torrini- Fisherman’s Woman