Frida Hyvönen - “Enemy Within” (Silence Is Wild, 2008)
Some more songs you’ll encounter on the great, varied Silence Is Wild:
I’ve already quoted this song’s opening line, so if you’ve been waiting to find out what helps Hyvönen defeat the enemy, it’s the drums, which I’d argue are the most important addition to her sound on this album. On “Enemy Within,” Jari Haapalainen’s drumming (he also produced the album) reminds me of Ringo Starr’s ca. Abbey Road/Plastic Ono Band, a steady, leisurely style that’s much more expressive than anyone ever gives it credit for. Ringo is my favorite drummer.
“Highway 2 U”
Some might disagree, but I’d say that “2 U” is fair game, as long as the person using it recognizes that it’s not shorthand for “to you,” but the name of pop’s great, unattainable place.
Similarly, a highway song is only a highway song if it never gets where it’s going. And with nothing to keep accurate measure of the physical distance traveled (I’m thinking the machine sounds of John Grant’s “Pale Green Ghosts”), “Highway 2 U” feels unusually suspended in time.
A simple piano waltz in the manner of Until Death Comes. The phrase “the marrying kind” rankles a tiny bit less each year, as more and more people have the option to define themselves against it and aren’t simply denied it by law. Hyvönen’s message here should be taken lightly. The way she sings that phrase in the exact voice of Eleanor Friedberger, for example, hints that she should never be accused of stultifying seriousness. I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that she can be very funny, though perhaps only to herself. She’s so flippant on the subject of marriage at the beginning of “My Cousin” that when her romantic feeling suddenly intervenes, you can’t help but want to shout, “Oh, Frida!” (if I’m being so familiar, all of a sudden, it’s because I feel the same way as her). Still, then and now, this could be a gay anthem, for its identification with people who “live outside the realms of yes and no” but don’t always find the idea entirely liberating.
Another tale of an insufferable lover, not unlike the one from “You Never Got Me Right.” This time she explicitly structures the song in the form of a break-up letter, ending, “Bye bye, scientific you!” I wish more songs pointed out the ways in which the “analytical” brain, when full of a sense of its own infallibility, is afflicted with a much worse case of blindness than the “emotional” brain. “You dress up in knowledge,” she sings, and then a ghostly echo, so cutting: “Your knowledge.” Sci-fi effects abound. Shrill, interstellar sirens go off during the finale. Hyvönen is her own celestial object and gravitational force, parceling out abbreviated lines until the beautiful moment when the key changes and her full melody finally unfurls.
I could be spending a lot more time thinking about Hyvönen in the context of Joni Mitchell, after the excellent Mitchell week that preceded me on this site. So far all I’ve got is that “Scandinavian Blonde” is her “Raised on Robbery,” a hammering rock tune out of nowhere. Still, a bit less out of nowhere than Until Death Comes’ “Come Another Night.” Silence Is Wild better supports outliers.
The winter songs I listened to in my formative years usually wanted to be the weather, not the people. “December,” for me, means For Against. Hyvönen’s “December” is the opposite, a queasy parlor recital to accompany her most diminished vocal, performed in character—her vibrato weakens to reveal nerves, maybe crying, and her rasp increases—and telling the story of something that happened in December.
The Stephin Merritt of “Abigail, Belle of Kilronan” might have conceived of this particular arrangement of cello and harpsichord-synth (and sighing, underwater vocals during the instrumental break), but his version wouldn’t so explicitly lend itself to a square dance: “Tell them to put on their dancing shoes now.”
More Ringo Starr drumming, this time by Tammy Karlsson, on this response song to Smog’s “I Break Horses.” Whether or not Hyvönen misjudged the cruelty of Bill Callahan’s songwriting, “Pony” imparts a more plausible vision of the law of animal taming, so that the song’s impetus becomes irrelevant.
“Our love is a flower that blossoms in China.” When Hyvönen’s songs venture abroad, she’s a musical traveler briefly helpless to those essentialist character definitions proposed by John Berger for the major cities of the world:
Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and, in this, hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens.
Shanghai, I’ve always thought, is a glamorous woman who no longer has a past, having walked out on it one day by the front door, without warning.
Hyvönen might like that idea. And she could let herself get stuck in these reductive yet evocative versions of places—plenty have gotten away with it—but her near-crippling intelligence, sensitivity and self-awareness give many of her songs a slight “meta” quality (I’m thinking, again, John Grant), as if she’s constantly questioning the accuracy of, and her right to, the images she so desperately wants to employ thoughtlessly. “Who do you belong to?” she asks Shanghai (she loves to converse with places), the glamorous woman, perhaps. A question very much worth repeating when I get to India and “Gold.”
Frida Hyvönen - “London!” (Silence Is Wild, 2008)
If I’m still being sparing with the word great, I’ll introduce “London!” as Frida Hyvönen’s second great song, and her greatest song. It also has her biggest chorus to date, but achieves its volume and energy with a much smaller orchestra than the listener might imagine upon first listen: drums and tambourine, bass guitar to add bounce and amplify the resonance of her piano, backing vocals, and quiet organ to return the song to the sublime mundane as the singers whirl away to reverie. The drums are the first to arrive, after Hyvönen, and announce themselves softly, not as a question, but in their new role of supporting the narrative of her accumulating energy and passion. It’s still a mystery to me, whether she knows, upon beginning this song, its eventual peak, or if she just lets things happen in the moment.
“London!” is a monument to loneliness, and it’s funny that, for all the activity of her backing singers, Hyvönen’s storytelling is once again so effective that they’re incapable of troubling the song’s perfect solitude. It could almost be post-apocalyptic. Not a single other person enters the frame, except from the pages of a book, “beautiful boys in exquisite fabrics.” “I ate it like candy,” she sings, but a high oh oh oh (all one word, in-exquisite-fabrics-oh-oh-oh, given an elaborate rising-falling intonation) has already said as much. Then, in a sudden outpouring that disproves anyone who thinks that, as salve, she’s simply seeking love, she elaborates: “I want to be like them, I don’t care if they are men.” She so much doubts ever being heard or understood, of establishing human connection and a semblance of real life, that when she mentions Sherlock Holmes, she adds, “if you remember him.”
So, the narrator makes a lover out of a city, and not even one that treats her well. Is London the original source of her misery, or the place that best embodies it? “London, the way you hate me is better than love,” she sings, though for a long time I thought I heard “the way you hit me,” an echo of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” the Crystals classic that’s been aestheticized to death over 50 years. Her song’s better off without it. So, she’d rather be hated than ignored; the exclamation point of the title demands affirmation of her existence. She carries on an argument with London, and her voice is in top form here, equal to arguing the point of view of the last person on Earth. “You’re wrong!” occupies as many syllables as “you keep me hanging on,” and to the latter she appends, “to life,” a downward, perpetually breath-catching spiral of notes, joined by other voices. All fall down.
Finally there’s the bridge, which pitches the song into the realm of a musical number, the scene suspended in imagination. Hyvönen dances with the symbols of her desolation, the pipes, and both her half rhyme and the drummer’s thumping, cymbal-less articulation create the pipes’ song.
Frida Hyvönen - “Dirty Dancing” (Silence Is Wild, 2008)
“Dirty Dancing” is a childhood reminiscence of such exceptional weight that I can’t help but let it take place on the same street in my hometown (Helena, Montana) where I’d previously set Pulp’s “Disco 2000.” This, despite Hyvönen adding a specific caveat to her Dirty Dancing fantasies: “Minus the United States.” But Helena’s just a placeholder, the small boring town where the winters were long and where I saw the nineties dawning. Could’ve been anywhere, but its streets and buildings are all I’ve got, so I return to them when the song’s good enough, heavy enough with history.
As a song about fated, unfulfilled romance, “Dirty Dancing” somewhat follows the template of “Disco 2000” and its exquisite mingling of past and future, but with a few important narrative and structural differences, and not just in the significantly lowered pulse of the music. For one thing, the kids in “Dirty Dancing” share a connection that’s both more powerful than the one in the Pulp song, and more uncertain from the first moment. The opening line says it all: “Love of my life” doesn’t usually have a subordinate clause. So, no one explicitly states the expectations, and no plans are made. Or perhaps some calculation is at play: Does the adult Frida buy a house with a chimney because she knows he’s grown up to become a chimneysweep, or is it an accident?
The song has two distinct parts, first the memories, then the reunion, flecked with more memories. They get to touch again, brushingly, their bodies now reduced to evidence of their adult lives—“his sweeper’s arm, with my piano fingers.” As with “Disco 2000,” every detail is filtered through the heightened feelings of the narrator, and in this case it’s tough to say how much love there is going the other direction. But either way, it ends up the same. The other person has children, but not with the narrator.
I’m tempted to say it’s the best pop song without a chorus since Squeeze’s “Up the Junction,” but the wordless slow dance that overtakes the narrator between verses probably disqualifies it. And that slow dance is indispensable, the key to the song, the moment (repeated twice, a million times sadder the second time) when Hyvönen holds herself in a memory and tries to let its unbearable weight dissolve along the length of her gently moving limbs.
In the verses, her voice just completely unlocks and pours forth an astonishing set of beautiful lines, arranged in fours, non-rhyming—structured and fluid. I dare not quote any more of them, and steal away her precise utterance. When I’m being sparing with the word great, I say this is her first great song. It’s also the song that introduces, in a clear, major way, the dancing motif in her songwriting. From now on, the good ones always dance. “And he was a dancer,” she sings, the “and,” on its own, sufficient evidence of her feelings on the matter.
And, as a new location in Hyvönen’s discography, after the potentially disruptive PUDEL, the song forwards a larger narrative in the most pleasing way. Imagine, in sequence, Until Death Comes’ “Straight Thin Line” giving way to Silence Is Wild’s “Dirty Dancing,” the former song’s ultimatum supporting the latter song’s liberation, Hyvönen now free to attend to her most primal stories, her heart equal to their demands. She still plays piano (a splash of notes accompanies her first words), but in a looser, more punctuated style. Then, after about a minute, there’s the slow dance, and the tentative arrival of the drums, asking if they belong in Hyvönen’s musical universe. She says yes, with her swooning chorus, and the gestures to 50s rock ‘n’ roll accumulate from there, inaugurating a new era.
Frida Hyvönen - “Once I Was A Serene Teenaged Child” (live)
Back to Until Death Comes. I’m going to take care of the rest of Frida Hyvönen’s debut all at once, because: (a) time, and (b) I’m afraid of giving the impression, early on, that her music is worth your attention solely due to the lyrics. Here’s the antidote to such an impression, via Tom Ewing:
Lyrical analysis of pop can be a fool’s game, but here the music provides an answer and the words are a riddle – how do you get to how a record feels from what it says? Perhaps you can’t: feelings are complicated.
Yessir! My heart leaped to find this yesterday, after writing about the same song he’s describing, ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came.” He could be talking about Until Death Comes, which contains a lot of musical answers to lyrical riddles. But I should also point out that—when the album’s words are clearest, its storytelling perspectives unmistakable, its feelings palpable on the lyric sheet; when its music is prettiest, numb with surrender—it also contains lyrical answers to musical riddles, i.e. what is it, this time, that activates the pianist’s hands? Feelings are complicated, indeed.
Listening to Hyvönen’s later work, I’ve sometimes found myself thinking of her in the context of Patti Smith, the poet and artist who found great work in the world of music, and became a musician, and known as a musician. Listening to Until Death Comes, that’s obviously not Hyvönen’s case—she does so much piano playing, she seems to have been at it forever—but still the fool’s game, of lyrical analysis, of treating the musician as a songwriter and the songwriter as a poet, beckons.
After first track “I Drive My Friend,” Hyvönen’s playing will sometimes shift to an adjacent pallor or mode, but she makes no grand announcements. The predominant approach: Heavy is the left hand. To talk about the music on Until Death Comes, first or only, would require the intelligence of a piano teacher or a hypnotist. I wish I had it.
Hyvönen will earn an exclamation point much more spectacularly, with the next album’s “London!” but this is the song that gives Until Death Comes its title, so a helpless cry of vitality in the manner of I Want To Live!, but somewhat more muted than that, makes sense.
Again, you better damn well pay attention when she employs a rhyme: “As I tried to leave they looked my way, and whispered stay.” “They” are the sons of the drinker, who reflects on his shambles of a life after a night out, chastened, like the characters in Ironweed or Barfly, by daylight, hence the piano’s lighter, softer retracing of the lines it followed on “I Drive My Friend.”
“You Never Got Me Right”
Furious repetition of words and a vocal that slowly loses composure and goes into the red (“such a lack of taste!”) tease out the anger of the piano part, which would otherwise go along as gently and steadily as ever. The pianist’s mechanical motion is unmistakably therapeutic, this time.
Don’t you understand don’t you understand don’t you understand don’t you understand?
How lonely it gets how lonely it gets how lonely it gets how lonely it gets?
He doesn’t. He seems as incapable of compassion and understanding as the guy who shows up later on Silence Is Wild’s “Science.” To not be “got right” is especially unforgivable, this time, after she’s so recently, and sensitively, gone outside herself, inhabited the voice, taken on the flaws, of the narrator from “Djuna!” You don’t have to be as expansive with understanding as she is, but you can at least listen to her. This guy deserves to be written out; her song is the next best thing.
“Once I Was A Serene Teenaged Child”
I don’t want your body so close and dismembered, don’t take off your pants ‘cause I don’t want to see it.
I love this moment as much as Morrissey singing “I’m not a man” on his new album. I love this moment as much as the cover of Death Grips’ NO LOVE DEEP WEB, its featured object rendered inert by my iPod’s tiny display. I still believe that art, which spent centuries doing the opposite, can one day put away the phallus, forever.
Aside from brief interlude “Valerie,” this is the first song to disrupt the album’s established meter. Serenity is a waltz. In the voice of the teenaged child, she sings about “the feeling of pride and the loneliness to it.” Loneliness, of course, but wherefore her pride? She doesn’t need me to repeat it.
Hyvönen has a great deal of love for this confused teenaged child, and has already seen the bitter end of the song’s events—loneliness examined, mistaken pride turned inside out, serenity extinguished, an ending string of oh’s replaced with actual words, insight—the whole chain reaction that leads to the adult’s more measured songs, elsewhere on the album.
“Come Another Night”
The first glimpse of Hyvönen as a bandleader, or as the center of a full-band arrangement, but it might be the smallest song here, a compact pop tune, all its sounds softened to make for an easeful trip across the airwaves. Orchestral revelation will have to wait for her next album. This song’s greatest contribution to her songbook might be the way it just begins to suggest the malleability of the word “come.”
The meter of the album’s first half returns, and this time it inherits a perhaps satirical gospel feeling, as Hyvönen sings about immaculate conception (“See I have made him pregnant!”) and the Word.
“Straight Thin Line”
Hyvönen interprets things told to her by Agnes (Martin, presumably, the abstract expressionist painter thanked, along with Patti Smith, in the album’s credits). The straight thin lines of Hyvönen’s playing mirror the straight thin lines of Martin’s paintings, but no sooner does she suggest the ultimate goal of her station at the piano, as her piano-centered debut draws to a close (“straighten out my bends and my curls / how to escape my shape”) than she seems ready to abandon it, to step out and dance more, to embody the curves and the rhythm rather than long for them. The words are conditional: “If I was a straight thin line.” Simple, but annihilating in its simplicity.
Frida Hyvönen - “Everybody Hurts” (R.E.M. cover, 2007)
You might, at some point in your life, look closely at the people you love, before they’re gone, and tell yourself that some of the unquantifiable things you love about them you will one day find expressed in other people you meet. The assurance might comfort you, or it might not.
No, I’m not working toward an explication of the themes of “Everybody Hurts.” Bear with me.
Who do I love so much, that I’ll be devastated if I lose them without yet having found evidence of their most beautiful human qualities in other people? Michael Stipe, for one. It seems unlikely that we won’t hear his voice again, but who knows? In 2011, the year R.E.M. broke up, Julianna Barwick and Real Estate released great albums derived from the band’s musical DNA, and R.E.M.’s absence was suddenly tolerable. But I’d forgotten about Frida Hyvönen singing “Everybody Hurts,” so, beyond Perfume Genius, I was skeptical about the possibility of Stipe’s voice being similarly parceled out to newer humans.
But there it is, Hyvönen’s “Everybody Hurts,” still sitting on my computer, and listening back now, she does a number of things with her vocal that remind me that, much as I think I can’t live without Michael Stipe in the world, maybe what I can’t live without is a harder-to-name grace, empathy, presence. She’s got it, his range, the shakiness and crackle of his lower register, his emphatic higher notes (not too high), whatever that thing is that makes me feel loved.
Her version is from a total relic: Drive XV, a tribute to Automatic for the People commissioned by Stereogum upon the album’s 15th anniversary. It’s not even on the official track listing, which opts instead for Meat Puppets’ weirdly faithful take, but is featured as a bonus track. The junkyard of well-intentioned tribute albums is filled with too imaginative rearrangements of perfectly good songs, and blandly sincere and tossed off remakes. Both are equally irrelevant. Hyvönen’s version would fall somewhere in the middle, perhaps—the piano arrangement, less disciplined than anything on Until Death Comes, is serviceable, while the backing vocals have strange contours and haunt mostly as a result of lo-fi bleed—except that the vocal is so good.
“I heard this song for the first time when I was 14 or 15. I wanted to record this song like an echo of the way it felt to me then, and imagined singing it to console a 14-year-old version of myself.”
“If anyone is kinda ‘uhhh’ about it, they’ve probably heard it too much.”
Frida Hyvönen - “I Drive My Friend” (Until Death Comes, 2005)
An auspicious beginning, and yet inauspicious if not considered in the context of “Eleanor Rigby.” “I Drive My Friend” is a modest composition for two instruments, voice and piano, and an obvious lead single—for an album, for a career. Hyvönen’s left hand never stops, playing chords that fall and rise but mostly just tug, a hypnotic lure. I often imagine that musicians are constantly struggling against the entrancing possibilities of their instruments. That Hyvönen is able to make a fully expressive song out of this feeling—of slow surrender to mechanical motion, to soothing, helpless, repetitive sound, to hopelessness, to sleep—is quite a marvel.
The words are marked by the music’s surrender, and sometimes enhance it (“turn turn turn,” over and over), but also tell a different, more liberating story. When I first heard “I Drive My Friend,” I was a passenger again, on public transportation, remembering the rides of youth. Jon Auer’s “You Used to Drive Me Around” was my song. The transposed pronouns of Hyvönen’s song shuffle the narrator toward responsibility and maturity, which contain more fathomless pleasures.
I am transporting a treasure here,
I am making sure that he gets home.
The friend of the title is sometimes he, sometimes you; such flexibility of pronouns has long been a songwriting ideal, for me, ripe for interpretation. Or: The listener will replace them according to his or her own needs, anyway. So don’t mistake her for careless. As a lyricist, she’s already doling out rhymes like exclamation points, as if their power must be conserved. She allows herself two rhymes here, simple ones, made better in isolation. First she rhymes “a lazy summer’s day” with “no words or actions to make you stay” (she’s already let on that the treasure she’s sending off is more than a friend), and then, to end the song:
The sun is shining, I have everything,
A driver’s license, a car and a song to sing.
“Everything” is her grim reassurance. The recurring shine of the sun gives the song a pleasing overexposed quality. The day seems already long ago, but its sharpest objects and feelings are preserved.