Until Death Comes
hile imported Swedish singer-songwriters are becoming commonplace enough that lazy likenings of new ones to old are no longer defensible, imported Swedish singer-songwriters distributed in the U.S. by Secretly Canadian remain sufficiently rare to justify comparison. So we give you Frida Hyvönen, who shares a nationality, a U.S. label, and twinges of an aesthetic with melancholic popist Jens Lekman, but whose wobbly debut album—originally released last year—lacks the consistency to survive the comparison.
Until Death Comes is characterized by an alternately charming and frustrating minimalism. The bulk of the tracks are two-minute ditties featuring Hyvönen's elastic vocals over her unadorned piano playing, which for something close to half of the album settles for an agreeable oompah rhythm with only cursory variations from song to song—"I Drive My Friend," "Djuna!," "Today, Tuesday," and "The Modern" feature near-identical instrumentation to varied success. The best is album opener "I Drive My Friend," with a multitracked Hyvönen in full command of the brisk vocal melody and lyrics that skip efficiently from scene to scene of a lover's departure—"I am transporting a treasure here," she sings, driving him to the station; "I am making sure that he gets home." Hyvönen refuses to adopt any of the usual trappings of melancholic introspection, describing this morning's drive, last night's tryst, and her subject's final departure in simple, almost rushed phrases, letting sorrow wriggle past the song's jaunty coping-mechanism uncoaxed.
"I Drive My Friend" is so successful, indeed, that its simplistic musical template and placement at the head of the record make the songs that sound like it, rightly or not, seem like rough drafts. The moments on Until Death Comes that approach the promise of its first track are the ones in which Hyvönen does something different: the cartoon cabaret of "You Never Got Me Right," which punctuates hysterical repetitions of half-goofy lyrics with sudden breaks for breath, stretching the album's piano-recital decorum to its tantrumy breaking point; and most invigoratingly "Come Another Night," which sounds like the trash can over which the rest of the songs were shaken—they retain the piano and voice, and "Come Another Night" collects the handclaps, tambourines, trumpets, and violent Brill Building metaphors deemed inappropriate for the pristine dinner parties for which Until Death Comes seems to be designed. As these songs go—and you know how they go—it's no new classic, but it's a welcome and unexpected shot of klepto-pop that provides the album's closest brush with unbanishable specter Jens Lekman.
Hyvönen has more in common with Lekman than a language and a marketing department, even when a gulf of haphazard samples separates her simplicity from Lekman's junkyard pop—both are wry, melancholic songwriters, buoying their grief not with irony but accuracy, and both have a knack for arrangements that very carefully and unobtrusively reinforce their tragicomic narratives. But the fact is that most of Until Death Comes isn't "I Drive My Friend" or "Come Another Night": a lot of it is passable balladry like the generically Sapphic "Valerie" or the glacial "N.Y," a Sinatra-aping love letter with a gluttony for metaphor. Some of it is even musically inert disasters like "Today, Tuesday," in which all of Hyvönen's painful precision is obliterated by lines about the missing daylight of a jetlagged insomniac and the buzzing unreality of airports. What's frustrating about this album isn't the high percentage of filler; it's the width of the gap between the filler and the rest. There are moments here that do more than hint at Hyvonen's considerable talent, but, at least for now, moments are all they are.