On her third full length Ólöf Arnalds marries tradition and innovation. The language she does it in hardly matters.
Sudden Elevation is the first English-language album from this critically acclaimed Icelandic singer-songwriter. But the language in which she’s singing is almost irrelevant. Although the lyrics are often touching, poignant, and true, it’s the inflections and fluttering of her voice that really tells each of the stories she unveils in this 38-minute collection. Others have made comparisons to Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, and Karen Dalton and those are undoubtedly apt, though not defining.
The album begins on a decidedly uplifting note via "German Fields", a small dose of ‘60s sunshine pop that you almost believe came from some obscure singer on some obscure label from that bygone era. The sunny sounds and vibes prevail throughout the record -- it’s alive and well on "Fear Less", where Arnalds delivers one of her best performances here, and "Treat Her Kindly", which has one of the most memorable melodies.
There are dark and contemplative moments -- such as "Return Again" -- but uplift and redemption are never far, such as on "Numbers and Names", which recalls the ever popular Laurel Canyon sound albeit with a contemporary -- and decidedly international -- spin. There are touches of British folk music, in the vein of, say, Fairport Convention, on "A Little Grim" and the sweeping "Call It What You Want", but Arnalds never loses her way among the disparate influences.
Skeptics might suggest that some of the instrumentation and vocal arrangements occasionally veer toward New Age ennui -- the kind of cloying musical vagaries that have relegated Enya’s music to the shameful corners of your record collection -- but Arnalds’s abilities are such that her songs are not stuck in any one corner for too long. Classical instrumentation buoys rather than bows to catchy pop melodies and the hooks are only enhanced by what we might deem her more unusual choices.
But there’s nothing contrived about Sudden Elevation or Arnalds herself -- as evidenced by this record’s titular track, which sounds as natural and effortless as anything you’re likely to hear this year -- and that song in particular is destined to become one of the most memorable performances of her career. She’s also not above a sense of humor. Witness "The Joke", a song that clocks in at less than two minutes and recalls Moe Tucker’s charming performance on the Velvet Underground’s "I’m Sticking With You".
Her sense of perfection and beauty is never more finely honed, though, than it is on the record’s final track, "Perfect", which would not be out of place on an early Joni Mitchell album. But that makes it no less a gift for this generation of listeners nor is it any less a display of Arnalds’s artistic depth and genius for tributes to the past. It is both simple and complex in its beauty. Arnalds’s music is based upon tradition and the tiny innovations that an awareness of those traditions allows rather than novelty, which further makes the case for her as an artist worth our attention and for this record to remain in consistent play as she releases what is sure to be a long and endlessly intriguing series of records.