Grown Unknown is subtly powerful, but when the sharp shifts of its early songs fade away, you may find yourself missing those surprises.
It's an understatement to say that Lia Ices's voice is her greatest strength. Instead, let's call it a force of nature. It's got power when it needs it, size, nuance, and an aching sweetness that permeates all of her songs. If there's a grace to the quietly building songs on Grown Unknown, then it flows out of her voice and into the instrumentation, and not the other way around.
"Oh you know I need your mystic mind", she nearly whispers to start the record, and, over a spare piano, it's a quiet but totally effective attention grabber. The haunting piano ballad, which stretches out with spacious drums and cavernous echo between ringing chords, is as arresting a moment as this record offers. Its haunting sway lures you in, but it's when Ices's voice -- with its fittingly cool tones -- guides us to the chorus that things shift. Warm piano gets swapped for chilling keys, the big drums become a sinister thump, and Ices's stretching voice constricts, whipping up a spinning melody around you. The chorus ends in a series of "ooh-oohs" that break away from the tired want of the verses to something more demanding, a hungrier bay.
Grown Unknown is at its best when these shifts catch us off guard. For an album that spreads out so much, that takes its time with each note, the turns are surprisingly sharp. "Daphne" -- the best song here, with brilliant backing vocals by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon -- starts as stately folk music, with Ices beautifully channeling Sandy Denny. Halfway through, though, a piano clatters in with hard-hitting chords, and the song bursts itself open into a moody expanse of buzzing guitars and thundering drums. Ices and Vernon mesh perfectly here, one the body and the other its long shadow, and their voices swell to fill up all the space Ices created with guitar and strings early on. The title track has similar, though less dramatic shifts from the handclaps that give way to swirling stringed arrangements only to join them for a powerful close to the song.
So, yes, Grown Unknown is an album very much about negative space, about echoing atmosphere. In that way, Bon Iver is a fitting guest -- and possible muse -- as this album tries to deal in the same hushed power that made For Emma, Forever Ago so brilliant. Here, though, the interplay between stillness and movement in these songs isn't quite balanced. Though the first half packs all those pleasantly jarring shifts into her moody pop songs, as the album goes on and maintains its slow shuffle, the trick wears off a bit.
Where early on tension builds in the echoing quiet, while you wait to get blindsided by a new sound, as the record wears on you're not anticipating always so much as biding your time. "After Is Always Before" paces itself on clanging atmosphere and carefully layered vocals, but its military-insistent chug never breaks, and the vocal melody starts to wander a bit over the track. Similarly, on "Ice Wine", it's mostly just strings and Ices's voice, and as beautiful as it is, the space here comes off less as atmosphere and more as a lack. The song can never quite plant its feet and deliver the way others do. "Lilac", on the other hand, is laid bare with guitar and voice for most of the track, but the isolation of it fits well, as Ices sings "For only you, I sing only for you". Here, Ices peels off the layers of reverb that soak her voice through most of the record, and the striking clarity is a welcome change. Her voice clear, she delivers deeply felt lines with power, where in other moments you may be straining to figure out what she's saying through the smudge of echo.
The overall effect of Grown Unknown is subtly powerful. For an album so quiet, so insistent on its plodding pace, there are moments of sheer beauty and surprising energy. Ices's voice is beautiful and organic, even through all the effects, and you can feel her coming into her own as a songwriter. She pulls off no small feat creating an album that makes its deliberate speed (or lack thereof) work in its favor. Those exciting flourishes early on, though, even if the most brief shifting parts, often overpower the rest of the song, so that when they drift away in the album's second half, you may find yourself missing them.