Quirky production values do not a pop gem make. Expectations were extremely high for the fourth international album from Iceland’s Emiliana Torrini, and I regret to say that Tookah is the equivalent of the dreaded sophomore slump. Eight years have passed since the divine Fisherman’s Woman, and the inspiration that made that second record so glorious, has seemingly all but dissipated. Five years have now passed since her last uneven, but wildly entertaining effort Me and Armini, and it appears the success she received from its single “Jungle Drum”, has left her spinning in circles. Flickers of her unique vision remained buried under new songs that meander on, taking circuitous routes to nowhere in particular and remaining largely devoid of the splendid personality she displayed in previous releases.
While I can appreciate that the details of her private life seem to remain pleasantly guarded online, this new offering doesn’t really shed any light on the past five years since Me and Armini. Torrini gave birth to a baby boy in 2011, so one would expect that such an event would have created a lavish mine in which she could extract an inspired musical nugget or two. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit of a muted, nonchalant affair interspersed with a few uptempo numbers. This is primarily an album of background music that wants desperately to be more relevant than it really is.
The album begins with the title track “Tookah”, a fabricated word signifying God or the core of an individual, “before life decorated you like a Christmas tree with all the baggage”. While it’s charming that she’s attached such deep, poetic meaning to the song, the resulting product lacks a real arch and is oddly pedestrian. It sounds like a lost track from the Mitchell Froom-produced album Nine Objects of Desire by Suzanne Vega, except that Vega would have crafted something a bit more inspiring both lyrically and melodically. I’m still puzzled as to why this song was chosen to open the album.
“Caterpillar” and “Autumn Sun” harken back to the Nick Drake—like loveliness of Fisherman’s Woman and reminded me of why I fell in love with Torrini in the first place. When she’s in peak form, she is an artist of rare honesty and beauty. “Autumn Sun” is the crowing gem of Tookah and one of the best compositions she had ever crafted. The lyrics intimate that a fan, friend or acquaintance of Torrini brought flowers to their house, ingratiated themselves with the couple, and seduced her husband or lover. It’s one of the few times throughout the set that I replayed a track multiple times. It’s really gorgeous.
The Jack Johnson-lite song “Home” comes and goes without making much an impression, although it’s undeniably pleasant. The Eighties-homage “Speed of Dark”, is the album’s clear choice for a lead single, but I couldn’t imagine hearing this dance-pop flavored song pumping out of a club speaker, even if it were remixed. It is one of Tookah‘s few uptempo cuts and while it’s a welcome respite from the mostly glacial pace of the rest of the record, it’s just not on par with her past triumphs. The Oberheim and Swarmatron synths on this track provide an interesting texture to the whole affair, but the song just coasts along. The final cut “When Fever Breaks” begins with 3:51 seconds of guitar feedback and electro-nonsense before Torrini begins singing things like “desire is rage or rage is desire”. It’s completely unmemorable except for how baffling it is as an album closer.
Lyrically the album is often all over the place and at times it’s just an embarrassing mess, such as this passage from the peculiar sixth song off the record, “Animal Games”: “Now you say you love me, the next you’re going away / So I find a new love, cause that is what I do / You’re scaring off the dog, killing off the sparrow, howling like a wolf, poisoning the arrow”. What on earth does any of that mean? The first single, “Speed of Dark”, features a brilliant little gem of a sentence: “We threw our hearts in the wishing well”. Really? Although Torrini’s biggest asset hasn’t always been her lyrics, I’m rather surprised she couldn’t come up with something a bit less trite. Yet in the following song she delivers something strikingly beautiful in the penultimate track “Blood Red”. “You move like currents in wild storms downriver”. While it’s definitely not profound or terribly complex, that imagery is undeniably lovely.
In a statement released through Rough Trade website, Torrini has been quoted as saying, “For me the first album was learning to write songs, the second was working on my own melodies and lyrics and the last album Me and Armini was about learning to let go. With this record, it’s much more about the exploration of sonics and visual landscaping in order to find my own sound. I am a craftswoman and for me this record has been about Dan (Carey) and I evolving and going on a sound journey.” While she has lived with these songs for months and years and they probably hold a certain amount of emotional gravitas for her, they didn’t resonate with me, even after multiple listens. I really wanted to love this record.
Emiliana has admitted on her official website that creating the album was initially “extremely frustrating”, and that she “did not like the music we were doing because we had done it before”. If she believes this latest record encapsulates all the emotional, spiritual and personal growth of the past five years, then so be it. From an outsiders point of view though, Tookah is proof that Torrini is still searching for her voice, her sound, and her aesthetic. The album as a cohesive work of art appears to be a dwindling species these days, with record companies clamoring for hit singles. I wonder whether the pressure to deliver something cutting edge and innovative hindered Torrini’s creativity? While her latest record is certainly not a jumbled mess, there’s a definite decline in inspiration. I truly admire her for attempting to broaden her palate, even if the final product is a frustrating one.
// Notes from the Road
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