ometimes you're entitled to it, those obscenely self-conscious, reflexive moments steeped in whatever the movies taught you: your lover leaves you (wordlessly), and there you are, cigarette burning to your knuckles (close-up), wandering aimlessly down cobblestone streets (old, Western Europe); you feel just like you deserve to, a confused and muted tragedy all swelling up beneath your ribs. Suddenly, you’re content to be nothing at all under the sun and just walk (in black and white), to let the evening be some adequately-pathetic-but-not-blubbering sigh between the parentheses of the otherwise contained whimsy of your day-to-day. Nolita, the fourth album in as many years by the Israeli-Dutch singer Keren Ann (who performs in English and French), is a silken, purring document of those somber moments gently and steadily relegated to our firmly held stereotypes of the solipsistic solitudes that permeate such disparate metaphorical regions as “the wistful, deflated gazes cast out the window of your local coffee shop,” “the gossamer-swathed transitions of art-house romance movies,” “the collectively understood poetry of rain,” etc. Though it indulges in these stereotypes, Nolita is remarkable because it does it well, period.
The songs are quiet, understated, pretty, and blessed with a dreamy warmth that verges on narcotic, á la the self-titled Velvet Underground record, for example. Musically though, the styles have a surprisingly broad range for maintaining such a consistent tone: seductive Franco jazz-noir, filmic orchestral pop, dusty, country-tinged ballads, etc. Notably, the styles don't blend very much, which makes Nolita more of a museum, a carefully composed study of the musical cues and forms that suggest in us a light, yet persistent sadness, stripped of angst and drama. Keren Ann's voice comes built in with fully functioning nostalgia, fancy, and intimacy (breathy enough to be sexy, and bored enough to feel naive), but these qualities are tempered by the most common endgame of our emotional storms—a mild disinterestedness, a kind of bittersweet passivity.
In spite of, and also because of its emotional color, there's something uplifting and redemptive about the album akin to the way we may find clichés of sadness in movies life-affirming rather than depressing. Of course you could slickly bust into the chicken/egg polemic, hollering that Keren Ann's all about "going through the e-motions" or "sulk by numbers," that identifying one's self within the record's melancholic microcosms is some existential defeat and that a package as tidy as Nolita eschews the vitality of having New, Real Feelings. But regardless of whether or not the affective architecture of Nolita is culturally manufactured or innately understood, it connects with purity and grace, constructing a realm of comfort that reminds us both of the ubiquity of those "grayer" moods and the simplicity of their beauty.
Reviewed by: Mike Powell
Reviewed on: 2005-01-18