The World Is Saved
hile recording, Thom Yorke has claimed that you often have to sing unemotionally in order to sound emotional. It's an idea I never fully believed—the last thing we need in music is more indifference—but it is a notion I could certainly appreciate. Perhaps Radiohead's window dressing of arena rock shows emotion on a level that is a bit too populist for me, because listening to the intimate touch of Stina Nordenstam, I now feel more likely to subscribe to good ole' Thom's theory. The World Is Saved, then, is the latest in the line of Stina records that have this incredible way of projecting dramatic apathy. It often sounds like Nordenstam is on the verge of collapsing and yet she couldn't be more comfortable in that position.
Stina's reclusive nature has been well-known to the public for sometime now. She does not tour, she rarely gives interviews or does any press for her albums, and is devoted to altering her appearance with wigs and a pound of makeup at every photo session. Her wafer-thin, high-pitched vocals command a rather extraordinary amount of pathos for someone supposedly so hermetic. Perhaps the shock is in her lack of forthright sentiment: high voices are generally connected with tumultuous ramblings, but Stina often sings like she is giving you a dispassionate stare.
As good a entry into her damaged and ethereal vision of pop as any, The World is Saved arrives to us three years after the mainstream flirtations of 2001's This is Stina Nordenstam, and transports us into a miniature sphere where ornate horns, breathy woodwinds, twilight string quartets made from rust and muffled electronics combine to create a rather subtle and graceful form of melancholy. The cocoon-like nature on tap suggests that these are songs that were not made for the outside world; they are best heard surrounded by silence, whether it be early in the morning or late at night.
It is amazing how well all of these songs flow on a singularly relaxed dynamic level and yet are still imparted with the most detailed arrangements and instrumentation of Nordenstam’s career. Mandolins, vibraphones, live and processed drums, saxophones, and flutes all coalesce together into a simple, transparent atmosphere. Perhaps some listeners may miss some of the rough edges of guitar and quasi-industrial noise that typified her previous albums, but one of the main strengths of The World is Saved is its ability to transfer the desperate emotion of those discordant and cacophonous records into a smooth, easy-on-the-ear package.
Accompanying these lush backdrops are lyrics telling the naked tales of failed relationships, the despair in human achievement, and the redemption and hope we should hang on to; most of them sung in a chillingly bloodless fashion that shuns any sense of direct contact. "You're safer with me here, and you there", she states in "Winter Killing", with a delivery that is both callous and mournful. Although they may be a source of her sorrow, the characters sketches in these songs are perhaps the only people Nordenstam can really relate to. “Staring Out the World” contains a rather disarmingly empathetic verse where she relays her convictions on dealing with the shit of the world : “Indifferent she looks back / There isn't much to see / A wound about to heal / And about to bleed / I still have blood enough to stand / Blood enough to keep staring out the world“. On paper it might seem melodramatic, but on record it’s enough to cause at least a shiver.
For those moments when solitude craves heavy emotion on small scale, The World is Saved delivers in full. Be warned: constant listening to these tightly-knit pocket ensembles could lead you down the path of the anti-social. However, this shouldn’t dim the notion that this enigmatic Scandinavian is definitely one of the most overlooked songwriters and arrangers of the past decade, and that The World is Saved is something to savor.