As murky as the waters of Ask the Deep can get, the saving grace is always Sóley’s unique and arresting voice, which can conjure fairy worlds all on its own.
Before Sóley Stefánsdóttir stepped out on her own with the Theater Island EP in 2010, she was a part of Seabear, an Icelandic collective that hasn’t been very active of late. Seabear is something of a folk-blooded equivalent of Broken Social Scene, with most members of the clan having other irons in the fire. Whenever a member of such a collective takes that first step into the spotlight alone, the risk is that the absence of their supporting cast will overshadow the endeavor. In Sóley’s case, the opposite proved true. The differences between her 2011 debut album, We Sink, and the music of Seabear are not drastic, but We Sink manages to do more with less.
We Sink immerses listeners in the vivid imagination of its creator, a foggy fantasy realm of wistful piano, creaky percussion, and gentle tugs on rusty guitar strings. “Bad Dream” recounts a hallucination of being chased by a bloodthirsty rabbit so intimately that it sounds like Sóley is playing it sitting on your bed next to you, daring you to fall asleep. Along with recounting nightmares of hares that jump on you and rip your heart out, We Sink has its share of lighter moments, but a balance between the two moods isn’t a concern of Ask the Deep Sóley's latest outing. That much is obvious as early as the sinister synth ambience that summons the album’s opening song, “Devil”.
“Have I danced with the Devil? / Does he still love me?” This is the first question Sóley asks of the deep, but the one she really seems to be wrestling with is whether she loves him back. “If my mind is the Devil / I will have to leave/Otherwise we’ll grow together”, she continues, wrestling with her own psyche as if it were a toxic relationship. As if looking for any reason to take the path of least resistance and give in, she repeatedly tells herself that “It’s never sunny anyway,” before she decides to accept the Devil’s hand for at least one spin around the floor: “Do you want me to dance with you?” The song kicks off at the 2:20 mark: drums pounding, distorted guitars feeding back, and piano keys twinkling harder than ever before.
The sonic and thematic intentions declared by “Devil” are clear. Ask the Deep is both bigger and darker than its predecessor. The obvious allusion would be that if We Sink was the fall, Ask the Deep is the bottom. “Ævintýr” searches for a metaphor in the very specific horror of being buried alive, plucking out cringingly explicit details in the process. “Did we dig you deep enough down? / Did you wonder when this fairy tale would ever end?” A conclusion that “You must face your fairy tale” may not have provided much solace for the real man in Brazil whose story was the inspiration behind “Ævintýr”, but it is defiantly rousing in the context of the song.
Through a mist of distant clanging beats and lonely organ notes, “Halloween” arrives as a night where the boys dress up like dreamers and the girls dress up like nightmares. “The kids are crawling down the street / Dreamers, Nightmares, soon they will meet”; which sounds as if either a mortal collision is about to take place, or some mischievous girls are planning to pelt some unsuspecting boys with eggs. Ask the Deep doesn’t often exhibit the playful side Sóley more frequently shows on We Sink, but this is possibly one crack in the gloomy façade.
Still, as murky as the waters of Ask the Deep can get, the saving grace is always Sóley’s unique and arresting voice, which can conjure fairy worlds all on its own. The more adventurous instrumentation and arrangements also distract from the unrelenting lyrical dourness, pulling oddly uplifting choruses out of bleak material, perhaps pointing the way back to the surface.