[4 November 2010]
“Silje gjør det selv,” that is, “Silje does it herself,” declared Oslo newspaper Aftenposten on the subject of singer/multi-instrumentalist Silje Nes, in her native Norwegian. Good for her. The work ethic that playing everything you record requires must be impressive indeed—possibly only achievable by a true obsessive. (See: Sly Stone, Beirut.) The problem with obsessives, though, is their obsessiveness. It’s easy to imagine that their unchallenged vision produces a sound that, while certainly not wanting for integrity, might be just a tad singleminded.
Silje Nes doesn’t commit such misdemeanors in excess, but she definitely commits them, and in my humble opinion, that hurts her music and my ability to enjoy it. That it would fall under the listing for varied hyphenations of “bedroom” is likely, given its lyrical and sonic intimacy. That this gives her an advantage in many listening circles is also likely. Like Galaxie 500, Mazzy Star, and Iron & Wine before her, Ms. Nes adheres to the Nick Drake School of Rock, where the reigning dictum is quietness at all volumes. At best, it can be evocative and soothing, so it’s no wonder that it’s gained such longevity at the margins of pop music. And far be it from me to deny the hypnotic appeal of Opticks, Ms. Nes’s second album.
But hypnotic only gets me so far. I report that Opticks’ hushed apostrophes to absent lovers accompanied more than a handful of hungover mornings, a duty usually reserved for the Velvet Underground’s third or Fripp/Eno’s (No Pussyfooting). I’m not hungover every morning, though, and when I’m not, I’m much more hardened to Ms. Nes’s delicate charms. I listen for tunes, and find them only in “The Card House”, “Ruby Red”, and “Silver > Blue”, a Thurston Moore cover. I listen for virtuosity and craftsmanship, and whatever there is forced into menial mood-setting by Ms. Nes’s obsessive adherence to understatement.
Between a woman and her guitar, such restraint might be merely insipid. Between a woman and a chamber orchestra’s worth of instruments, it can be confounding. She aims for the psychedelic paradox of symphonic range that sounds intimate. Not an ignoble agenda; Grizzly Bear does the same thing. (So did Nick Drake.) Ah, but Grizzly Bear’s timpani crescendos and piccolo trills come onstage with dramatic purpose. They also crescendo, for that matter. Opticks simply picks up every now and then. Remember that she allegedly plays every part herself—every music-box vocal, clarinet, bell, whistle, and guitar. Is she so embarrassed by the riches of her talents that humility forbids her from playing above a murmur?
Not that it makes a difference. As music-lovers we should be concerned with what it all sounds like, regardless of the artist’s creative reticence. Still, I have my doubts about that reticence. Allow me to present as evidence the plethora of carefully placed floorboard creaks, whistling teapots, and ‘spontaneous’ rim taps and amp cracks, all which often obscure the breathy girl singing amongst the pastoral ambience. Ms. Nes imagines a world of infinite smallness, where soft-spoken monogamy is less a choice, it seems, than a certainty. Hence the words about particles colliding, “Crystals”, and the optical diagram decorating the album insert. Opticks doesn’t diminish her vision. Her vision is diminishment.
The Moore track boasts remnants of what may have been smothered when the floral-patterned walls closed in. Carried by the same music-box vocals that are Ms. Nes’s weapon of choice, it’s nonetheless the only tune I remembered after one spin, let alone three. Moreover, her calculated restraint fits, even improves upon, Moore’s elegy of carnal submission, by suggesting that her own cravings share the blame for unnamed “fun and games”. Poignant, what that reflects about the power play of romance. Astounding, too, if it weren’t so subtle; it’s the only moment on the album where the waifish blonde implies she actually likes sex, rather than simply using it as a pretext for navel-gazing. (Go figure that it takes singing someone else’s song for her to do so.) Otherwise, such signs of humanity must have been much too tawdry for her intents and purposes.
Why does Opticks get on my nerves so much? Jeff Buckley made private music from roughly the same parts, as does Xiu Xiu more abstractly, and I love both Jeff Buckley and Xiu Xiu. I also love good heavy metal, and even some bad heavy metal, but grouse about this record’s sonic myopia. The difference is one of boldness—of composition, of performance, and of spirit—which Jeff Buckley, Jamie Stewart, and many heshers have in spades, and Ms. Nes is only too eager to snuff out with carefully rehearsed preciousness.
Her worst offense, in this regard, might be “Hello Luminance”, beginning with, “The water is so clear / Even if it’s dirty.” She goes on to describe two lovers constantly missing each other, as if they were mere molecules in—you guessed it—water. This isn’t exactly terrible poetry. But when she delivers it with that steady Scandinavian coo, over gentle guitars and barely-there keyboards, it becomes too apparent just how much control she has over narrating her lack of control. Worst than just defeatist, Silje Nes comes off as that shy girl who realized boys liked her shyness, so shyness became her brand. And like that shy girl, Opticks is seductive, sort of fascinating (at least when you realize that “she does it all herself”), and, often, a genuine pleasure to spend some time with. But ultimately, that shyness, so obsessively upheld, is all there really is.