[3 June 2012]
While it may have been admiration for the natural order that drew Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell toward their respective, doomed journeys into the Alaskan wilderness, it was also inevitable that both would be overwhelmed by the same fierce immutability. Burning Hearts evoke both Treadwell (explicitly) and McCandless (implicitly) on Extinctions, a studio-sleek pop album that admires the grandeur and perils of nature from a safe distance.
The band, led by songwriting duo Jessika Rapo and Henry Ojala, recorded their second album not in Alaska, but in the Ostrobothnian countryside on Finland’s west coast. They previously used this pastoral setting as lyrical inspiration for their 2011 EP Into the Wilderness, two songs from which are seamlessly included here. There are some well-trodden narratives for artists who pull the return-to-nature move, so it’s to Burning Hearts’ credit that neither of these releases rely on the tired tropes of acoustic guitars and folky earnestness. Rapo and Ojala don’t treat the absence of urban life as a blank upon which to gush out a memoir or imagine and dubiously recreate an idyllic past. To do so would be to miss the drama and inspirational possibilities of the world that’s left when you scrape away the comforts of modern life.
Musically speaking, Extinctions doesn’t affect a back-to-basics aesthetic, either. In fact, it’s considerably more lavish and more obviously the work of a seasoned live unit than the band’s synth-heavy debut, Aboa Sleeping. Yet even with the greater emphasis on live drums, bass-driven melodies, and hooky clean guitar leads, these tracks are sparingly constructed, with every tastefully swooping lick given space to make an impression and Rapo’s voice ever the focus. The stark and functional familiarity of the band’s indie pop reflect the laws governing the beasts, men, and landscapes of the lyrics.
On “Into the Wilderness”, Rapo is “returning to the nightmare” of the Alaskan tundra, laying out the rules that Treadwell neglected to follow: “The animal with the strongest paw / Mixed friends with prey / It’s nature’s law.” Rapo’s delivery falls somewhere between a Nico monotone and the relaxed tunefulness of Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, which lends the song and the rest of the album an air of detached observation but with a hint of sympathy. She’s not much for fancy runs or melodrama even at her most enraptured or distraught, which often works to the music’s advantage. For instance, she’s able to pull off lines like “This is our world / A sacred place to be” (“The Swallows”) with enough gravity to narrowly avoid treehugger schmaltz. She keeps a respectful distance on “On the Last Day of the Decade”, seemingly a meditation on the 2009 Sello mall shooting in Espoo, Finland. When the band turns its attention to personal relationships on “Love and Dissonance”, it’s Rapo’s calm tone that keeps things anchored even on potential sap like “Beautiful, beautiful you / Sing me our song the way you used to do.”
Rapo’s emotional distancing and seemingly equivocal attitude towards man’s role in the wild is at its best, however, when underscoring lyrical ambiguities. Are those wings that “aren’t good for flying” on “Modern Times” meant to be literal? Does “The Beast” portray human fears metaphorically in terms of predator and prey (“What if I woke up feeling that I wasted all these years and got nothing in return?”) or is the song actually about the top of a natural food chain upended by man (“You think that you are a king / But in the blink of an eye, you could go extinct / My head and fur’s trophies, my heart’s on a plate / Everyone likes a piece of the beast”). Rapo’s objective tone keeps you guessing.
The downside to Burning Hearts’ subtle and understated approach is that their music comes across as slightly low-stakes. There’s a lot to admire here, both lyrically and compositionally, but the lack of dynamic highs and lows make it a solid, rather than outstanding, work. Regardless, the prettiness of the music and its intersection with the harsh natural world of the lyrics mark Extinctions as a rare bird worth checking out.