Elena Setien 2022
Photo: Pablo Axpe / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Elena Setién’s ‘Unfamiliar Minds’ Basks in Quietly Foreboding Minimalism

Immersion into Elena Setién’s Unfamiliar Minds is not unlike watching a bowl being coaxed into shape on a potter’s wheel. The slightest touches can send it in another direction.

Unfamiliar Minds
Elena Setién
Thrill Jockey
28 January 2022

If we were lucky — and hundreds of millions weren’t — the lockdowns of 2020 allowed us to live gracefully in confinement. Working from home necessitated long walks, more attention paid to various birds or trees, perhaps a greater appreciation of trails, parks, and nearby woods if we had them. As time slouches forward amorphously, the stories of how musicians adapted, used to touring and playing in the same room with others, continue to reveal themselves, often with some interesting results. Such is the case with Basque country-born artist Elena Setién.

Past recordings have seen here collaborating with everyone from Steve Gunn to Mary Lattimore for melodic pop that might be distant cousins of Angel Olsen or Waxahatchee if they were more inclined to protest song. Her voice tended to be front and center, and her piano drove the tunes in blocks of chunky chords, with swirls of guitar or plucks from her violin as accompaniment. Her 2019 release, Another Kind of Revolution, is a fine place to hear this version of Setién’s musical vision.

Unfamiliar Minds is something else altogether. Setién’s keyboard instruments, guitar, and violin still dominate (with a bit of help from the electronics of fellow Basque musician Xabier Erkizia, who Setién has also collaborated with for 2020’s Mirande). Her voice, this time around, is wrapped in echo or enveloped by instrumentation while the melodies themselves are elusive. Songs tend to waft past on beds of keyboard drones or distant chimes. It’s possible some of this shift has been inspired by her soundtrack work on such TV shows as the Basque language Altsasu. Still, it appears that recording this album over a year between early 2020 and March of 2021 played a massive role in its hushed disturbances.

The title track begins with a riff from a distorted electric guitar, as she speaks of “a futuristic language everyone can speak”, and hearing “the thunder in our unfamiliar minds”. Later, she adds strings and cooed, wordless vocals near its end for a sound as hopeful as it is portentous. “No Trace” features ice pick stabs of a guitar as a repeated wall of electronics, not unlike the clanging of a construction site, builds up behind her repeated lines. The final fade leaves only her voice. It’s as if none of the music was there, to begin with. 

Setién also spent some time during the height of pre-vaccine Covid with Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and this influence pops up in “In This Short Life”, where she repeats the poem’s two lines as several keyboards build around her, her lyrics finally give way to soaring, scat-like vocals. The entire performance sounds like it’s resonating from a deep, underwater cavern.

Much of the record does something that truly sets it apart from her previous work. It’s as if being home allowed her to hear symphonies in single notes or a line or two of words, and her job became tenderly stroking all of this music into being before it got lost or broke apart. In this way, an immersion into this record is not unlike watching a bowl being coaxed into shape on a potter’s wheel. The slightest touches or even a hint of a nudge can send it off in another direction.

RATING 7 / 10