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.

“Djuna!”

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 Modern”

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.

Hyvönen:

“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.”

Mike Mills:

“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.

Frida Hyvönen Gives You: “Super Trouper” & Other ABBA Favorites*

*apocryphal


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The first thing you gotta remember is that ABBA was the greatest pop group of all time. You must realize this or nothing wonderful can come from anything I am about to relate.

So I’d begin my liner notes, if this album existed. It doesn’t. For one thing it’d be too obvious. What eminent Swedish songwriter would be so foolish to chain herself to the legacy of ABBA? British songwriters aren’t obligated to make Beatles covers albums, after all.

And does ABBA speak to Frida Hyvönen in any meaningful way, a way that can be given to the public? She’s an individual, not a hit-making quartet. She’s not internationally famous. Even if the world asked her to be, it’s unlikely she’d start rhyming her lines.

Still, it’s fun to imagine.

“Super Trouper” could only have been made at the end of ABBA, after the touring and the divorces, as loneliness settled in permanently. Fortunately, as a solo artist, Hyvönen is not bound to a songbook that tracks the emotional trajectory and life cycle of a pop group. Everything is an ending and a beginning, in her songs. Her loneliness precedes any awareness of her fame, and it precedes the ends of relationships. So how does she get at that particular, mysterious sadness that afflicts the other Frida (Anni-Frid), who stands at the end, at the center of unbelievable success? She multi-tracks her voice, a novelty for her, and sings all the original vocal parts. She’s never been one to exaggerate the abundance of her voice, but the tactic works brilliantly here: The energy she sends out echoes the gulf that faces her.

Consider, too, her take on “The Day Before You Came.” As one of ABBA’s final recordings, this song makes a great deal of sense. We understand “you” not as a happy ending for the song’s singer, but as the nameless, inevitable dissolution of individuals, and a terrible glimpse of the future ABBA music we’d never hear. Death, more or less. But if this was one of the final recordings of an ordinary solo artist, the idea of it would be stifling, unbearable! How personal and straightforward it would seem. Someone, an actual person, came along and silenced her music? Hyvönen is not that kind of artist. Wisely, she places her version at the beginning of Side B, not the end of the album, and shapes her vocal in such a way as to show herself content in “the day before,” awaiting the enemy. As with her own “Gold,” the last song on To The Soul, which ends with the most confusing string of I-love-you’s ever uttered, endings are a ridiculous notion. Fingers crossed for a follow-up to that song.

Basically, Hyvönen would make this album work, even if I’ve selfishly wished her into it. Sometimes it seems too obvious that accomplished songwriters don’t really want to be singing other people’s songs, but Hyvönen has proven herself a fine interpreter, as we’ll see. And ABBA makes it easy. “Super Trouper” is the rare song about fame that belongs to everyone. The group’s lessons of pop stardom are improbably beautiful, then and always.

p.s.

Agnetha Fältskog, the other A, has been active since ABBA, but returned last year in slight comeback mode. She titled her album A (it’s good!), and included a song called “Back on Your Radio.” It’s a song about rekindled love that uses metaphors of signals and static as a clever way for Fältskog to sing directly to her old fans. The song’s formulation of her relationship with her audience is natural and expected. Of course she’d return to her rightful place in the universe, and yet the song stays in such a modest key that its assumptions are never tacky. The ominous chill that engulfed ABBA is easily shrugged away. But her description of where she’s been is telling:

I’ve been caught inside a radio shadow for the longest time.

Sounds cozy. Frida Hyvönen, born December 30, 1977, a few weeks after ABBA The Movie opened in Swedish theaters, will eventually cross paths with a different member of ABBA (the full story, later), but until then, join me in radio shadows.

Frida Hyvönen, minus the United States

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Thanks, Hendrik! Good afternoon from Minnesota, everyone! I’d re-introduce myself, but the only thing you really need to know about me right now is that I’m from the U.S., as this will inform my understanding of the great Swedish musician Frida Hyvönen and the nature of her renown.

The reason for this is quite ordinary: Hyvönen has been without an American label since 2008, when Secretly Canadian released her second album Silence Is Wild stateside to positive reviews. It wasn’t enough. Introducing an international artist to the U.S. is a one-time deal, I’d thought, but without press or publicity or even Allmusic to lead listeners to 2012 follow-up To The Soul, no one here ever knew it existed, despite its budget availability as an Amazon digital album. So, a record that debuted at #4 on the Swedish charts didn’t get a single American review, beyond the one I posted in my little corner of the Internet. Oh well, it happens all the time, but I’d thought we were committed to making Hyvönen happen here.

Not too many years ago, her U.S. presence went without saying. In 2006, when Secretly Canadian released her debut Until Death Comes, I was already thrilled by a seemingly endless influx of Swedish music that showed an increasingly sophisticated, progressive and romantic attitude toward long-suffering pop tropes, youth music, etc. It made for effortless college radio programming, free from stylistic restraint. Class of 2005-06: El Perro Del Mar, The Tough Alliance, Jens Lekman, Jose Gonzalez, Love Is All, The Knife, Sally Shapiro, Peter Bjorn & John. Conversational piano pounder Hyvönen was an immediately welcome addition. Of course ABBA had contained this degree of creative energy wholly within themselves, and Nuggets II offered a glimpse of what predated them, and there’d been other Swedish pop groups (as phenomenal as ABBA, as obscure as The Tages) to get attention here in the intervening decades, but the sudden range, and our sudden interest, seemed unprecedented.

But it was arbitrary, just a lot of good music happening at the same time. There was no vanguard to protect, so Hyvönen slipped away from us, while continuing to make her best work and becoming ever more popular in Sweden.

So I’m thrilled to reflect on her music this week, and, toward the end of it, to formally “introduce” her masterpiece, To The Soul (Swedish readers can play along). The rest of her discography should perfectly fit the days until then: her first two proper albums, two other short albums made to accompany a dance performance and a photo exhibition, respectively, and a handful of cover songs and collaborations.

But first, a whim.


Feedback on these posts? Yes, please! Positive, negative, I don’t get enough of it. @stuevgrooves // gstueven@gmail.com

Track

If I Had a Heart

Artist

Joni Mitchell

Album

Shine

"If I Had a Heart," Joni Mitchell

Alright. Final post, final album. Shine was released in 2007 on Starbucks’ record label, after Joni Mitchell had left the entire music industry in a “I hate what the corporations have done to this place”-induced snit. Joni becomes self-righteous about globalization and the destruction of the environment on this album, which is pretty funny when you consider to whom she’s given the right to release her album and make truckloads of money.

This is a nice song, melodically! “Bad Dreams” and “This Place” from this album are also very lovely. My issue with this album in the grand scheme of things, though, is that Joni Mitchell has gotten bogged down. She’s started to think of herself as “one of two women on Rolling Stone’s best guitarists of all time” and the best female lyricist of the 20th-century and has forgotten what put her there, which was a firm commitment to her own independence and her own values. Do I like her more than Bob Dylan? Of course. Do I think that she had any place making those comments? Of course not.

The point here is that Joni Mitchell has failed to maintain her music into the 21st century and, frankly, she’s failed to age gracefully. It would be doing a disservice to her career to pretend that this album never happened, but this isn’t what made her great. 

Joni Mitchell was a brilliant lyricist and a ground-breaking musician and gave pieces of herself into every song, and that’s why audiences still love her: they feel connected. Nothing on Shine feels like that. It’s the early stuff that still rings with optimism and with a sense of her own place in the world that will stand the test of time.

Thanks to everyone for reading this week, and thanks so much for Hendrick for giving me the opportunity to talk about Joni Mitchell (which I will continue to do over at my blog, ashcanranting). Thanks, finally, to Joni herself, for giving me the soundtrack to my life. You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever heard, and you’ve made me stronger.

"Come in from the Cold," Joni Mitchell

This is the best song of the second half of Joni Mitchell’s career, bar none, but also the most shocking if you’re careening from the highs of, say, “The Arrangement,” and hear the change in her voice by the time Night Ride Home was released in 1991. She started smoking young, smoked heavily throughout her life, and dealt with health problems as she aged, and here’s the end result.

That’s not to say, of course, that her voice isn’t beautiful in this: it is. Night Ride Home is the first time anyone would ever describe Joni Mitchell’s voice as “smoky,” but that works for lines like “Is this just vulgar electricity/Is this the edifying fire?” or “I feel renewed/I feel disabled/By these bonfires in my spine.” It almost feels like a refined version of “Electricity,” with that particular metaphor showing up throughout the song, but that would be an oversimplification of the song.

Joni Mitchell is still so freaking independent, though; she’s still staking a claim to her own place in the music scene and her own place in her personal life and her own life in the narrative that’s become The Story of Joni Mitchell, with the lines

I am not some stone commission
Like a statue in a park
I am flesh and blood and vision
I am howling in the dark

The other great song off Night Ride Home is “Night Ride Home,” perfect for this time of year, incidentally (also, look at that music video!). 

"Come in from the Cold" is firmly in the Experimental side of the Joni Mitchell discography, but it pulls in all the best stuff from her early work, never leaning too far into the self-indulgence of some of the other songs from the Geffen records.