Frida Hyvonen on record and Frida Hyvonen in the flesh are very different experiences. Live, the performer takes up the whole stage; she must be approaching six feet tall, and her presence is intense and a little unhinged. You get the sense that things could fly off the rails at the smallest provocation. At the same time, her personal, confessional songs come over live a little like high school poetry, which puts a barrier there between the performer and the audience. Well, here’s someone who obviously experiences the world very deeply, but communicating that through wildly banging on the grand piano is difficult. It’s easier for Hyvonen to achieve her desired mixture of personal revelation and unexpected songcraft on record, actually.
There’s no doubt that this artist is serious about her songs, and carefully plans the lyrical path each song makes in order to most forcefully illustrate her point. But her mechanism of communication immediately finds familiar images, and sticks to them tenaciously: farewells, one person not ready; last night’s drinking at a bar; unbreakable barriers between people, between boys and girls. And of course, loneliness—a feeling male singer-songwriters don’t have sole ownership of. Occasionally, though, she’s shockingly forthright (I won’t ruin it, but listen to “Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child”). Djuna Barnes, the influential turn of the century modernist author, gets a song dedicated to her on the album; and throughout, the theme of the feminine, her strengths and her weaknesses, is a strong one.
Hyvonen’s songwriting throws these issues, the words and what they signify, in starker relief as the musical accompaniment is so obviously second fiddle. The mode of approximately half the songs on Until Death Comes is very simple: Hyvonen’s clipped phrases, to the accompaniment of honky-tonk piano plonks and plunks (that’s it). This slightly off-kilter folk modality creates an unusual, uneasy kind of happiness and a barreling desperation (depending on the mood of the song). “You Never Got Me Right” has some of the spirit of Regina Spektor, but without those pop melodies, more raw emotion. “Straight Thin Line” has the soft simplicity of a Chopin prelude (or a love song like “The Rose”), but a pretty synth countermelody and compelling ideas, a compelling yearning. “Come Another Night” is the only song on the album with a full band background, and it’s better for it. The sound is incomparably fuller, and the music breathes interest into the still-quirky songwriting.
But her missteps, as on the Sinatra-inspired but still surface-only ode “N.Y.”, limit Hyvonen’s appeal. Her rolling accompaniments don’t vary as much as they might. And the disc is short, at just under half an hour. Frida Hyvonen has the talent and the depth of feeling necessary to make one of those records that captures us completely, but she’s not there quite yet. A little polishing, and some work to expand the range of sounds she corrals to her unique sensibility, and we could have a new must-hear songwriter.