If Frida Hyvönen’s debut, Until Death Comes, painted her poetry and fatalism in stark black on white, her impressive sophomore effort is all shades of grey. Largely abandoning the honky-tonk piano accompaniments that purposefully limited her early compositions, Hyvönen’s quietly grown into fully-realised pop star, her arrangements now lush where they were stark. Even on simple piano ballads, the Swedish songstress seems to have found greater confidence, a richer harmonic vocabulary, and a more coherent style. Which, together, makes Silence Is Wild a pretty impressive album.
Frida Hyvönen is not shy about chronicling uncomfortable experience. On “Once I Was a Serene Teenaged Child”, from her debut, she sang about the complex emotions of a young relationship: “Once I felt your cock against my thigh … I want to be one of you guys / But I don’t want your body so close … But the feeling of power was intoxicating”. The singer’s conversational writing style and forthright, even confrontational, subject matter is carefully calibrated — she must be counted a feminist singer-songwriter, but this isn’t what makes her unique, or special. That is a consequence of the skill with which she communicates commonly experienced but rarely-discussed ugliness to the listener . Silence Is Wild deploys its bombs with casual sweetness. Watch for the longing in “My Cousin”, when Hyvönen asks:
I’m not the marrying kind, and neither are you
But still I am absurd enough
To ask you: if we were the marrying kind
Would it be my hand you’d ask for?
Then there’s “December”. The song, a companion piece perhaps to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, has the harmonic adventurousness of Soviet Kitsch-era Regina Spektor, but without the cuteness. It’s a devastating, drop-what-you’re-doing moment.
But for all that, Hyvönen is still only intermittently so forceful in her emotional imagery. “Dirty Dancing” opens the album in a warm haze of rejection painted in metaphor drawn from the movie, and a clipped refrain you might recognize. But a number of the songs here won’t work on many levels above the straight piano-pop song, catchy phrases hooking the listener in, with larger meaning mostly absent. Hyvönen’s best when turning that acute observation on herself — whether that be self-deprecating, as on “Scandinavian Blonde” (a rollicking Ben Folds-esque track that mocks the stereotype and also wonders how Hyvönen herself can simultaneously fall into it) or the haunting final track, “Why Do You Love Me So Much”. Sharing Paul Simon’s amazement from “Something So Right”, Hyvönen here asks “Did I win the Nobel prize? … I must have been sleeping”, and we can easily relate. “Have I by mistake been extra charming?”
In the past, Hyvönen’s songs worked as intellectual touchstones, but not necessarily always as songs. It’s the triumph of her new record that these two essential elements of her songwriting have been more or less reconciled. “Please call the boys”, Hyvönen asks her mother rhetorically on “Birds”, “Tell them to put on their dancing shoes now”. No need to ask, Ms. Hyvönen — we’re already dancing under your spell.