Emiliana Torrini’s 1999 debut album Love in the Time of Science remains one of the most underrated gems in recent memory. Lushly produced by Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal, the album was a sumptuous piece of techno-pop, the gorgeous arrangements acting as a perfect backdrop to the young, eccentric Italian-Icelandic singer-songwriter. Her petite voice, not to mention her Icelandic background, led to many comparisons to Björk, and while her vocal phrasing sometimes did bear a strong similarity to the ever-enigmatic Ms. Gudmundsdóttir, Torrini kept her sights aimed more toward the middle of the road, her compositions having more of a pop appeal (something that Björk has long since abandoned), exemplified by the wonderful singles “Unemployed in Summertime” and “Wednesday’s Child”. If anything, the most impressive thing about Love in the Time of Science is how it predates Goldfrapp’s masterful 2000 debut Felt Mountain, possessing the same entrancing blend of chill-out electronic music, organic instrumentation, and hypnotic vocals. While Goldfrapp went on to steadily build a fanbase, Torrini remained a cult favorite, but with such a strong debut album, it had to be only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on.
That is, if she ever got around to recording a follow-up. It’s not as if Torrini has been completely inactive; in the past couple years, she’s appeared on the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, singing the haunting “Gollum’s Song”, and even more surprisingly, she wrote Kylie Minogue’s sultry pop hit “Slow”, one of 2002’s best singles. Still, especially today, when MP3s are exchanged at furious rates, with people’s favorite iPod songs changing weekly, it’s easy for an artist today to become yesterday’s news, making it very easy to forget about someone who knocked you out with a single five years ago. So it was no surprise that when word came out that Emiliana Torrini had a new album coming out, more than a few people stopped and thought to themselves, “Oh yeah, her.”
Six years is an eternity in popular music, so it’s as if Torrini is starting from scratch, a feeling that’s noticeable the instant her new CD Fisherman’s Woman starts playing. Gone are the comfy, heavily layered electronic sounds, replaced by a simple acoustic guitar, and little else. Collaborating with a Brixton-based producer named Mr. Dan, Torrini creates a sound that’s every bit as welcoming as Love in the Time of Science, but only on a much more intimate level. Much like what her fellow Iceland natives Múm did on last year’s Summer Make Good, the mix is very cozy, her hushed voice is accompanied by the odd sound of wood creaking (like a house’s foundation settling in the cold, or a ship’s hull creaking at sea), but instead of creating a sense of foreboding, it only softens the sound even more, giving it a dreamlike quality. And a good dream it is.
“Home alone and happy,” sings Torrini on the opening track, over a gently plucked acoustic guitar, “Nothing brings me down.” Centering on the theme of strength, hope, and faith during periods of loss, Fisherman’s Woman delves into the inner conflicts of a person separated from a loved one for an extended period of time, whether it’s a fisherman’s wife hoping her husband returns safely, or a musician on the road yearning for home. The lovely, lilting “Sunnyroad” has Torrini’s protagonist writing to a former lover (“I know I’m bad to jump on you like this/ Some things don’t change/ My middle name’s still ‘Risk’”), while the forlorn “Snow” borders on desperation (“And I hope again to live this life/ Just to see you again before I die”). “Next Time Around”, the album’s prettiest moment, has Torrini meshing that sense of loneliness with her enigmatic lyrical style that made her first album so charming, while giving the record’s most nuanced vocal performance.
The album’s tone overall is comfortably consistent, the only musical variation being the shift to a shimmering vibrato electric guitar on “Honeymoon Child” (a song written by (smog)‘s Bill Callahan), subtle electric piano on the title track, and a very understated blend of piano, glockenspiel, and pedal steel on “Today Has Been OK”. This sort of thing has been done to death so much, especially since a new generation discovered the great Nick Drake in the late ‘90s, but every so often, you get an innocuous CD that’s so beguiling, it really shows how easy it is to separate the pretenders from the real thing. Fisherman’s Woman is a breathtakingly beautiful little album, and it’s Torrini’s unwavering optimism and patience underneath the despair which makes the record so gratifying. “Waiting for you by the window/ With the brightest red lipstick on my lips/ Just like Anna waits for her man/ How will I learn?” muses Torrini at one point, only to suddenly realize there’s only one answer to that question. “I’ll wait.”