Norwegian singer-songwriter Kari Rueslåtten has classical music, doom metal, and indie-folk in her formidable repertoire: a quintessentially Nordic mix. New album Sørgekåpe sees her move far away from heavy experimentation, applying pop sensibilities and her soprano voice to rootsy music with mixed results.
To start with, Rueslåtten’s voice — singing here entirely in Norwegian for the first time on a solo album since 1997 — is an unequivocally well-honed instrument, her delivery sparkling. Much to her credit, Rueslåtten has the flexibility to adapt her skills to the more pastoral aesthetics of Scandinavian folk singing. The vibrato that lends itself so well to the darkly melodic nature of much of her work years ago with The 3rd and the Mortal is still present. But she executes it more broadly, in such a way that it feels organic within the brighter soundscapes of Sørgekåpe.
Standout track “Når mørket faller” is a particularly stellar performance, showing Rueslåtten at her most angelic against a dreamlike guitar, evoking imaginaries of olden times on rural farmland through powerful, heartfelt calls into the wind. Closing song “Storefjell” is similarly ethereal, but even gentler, Rueslåtten landing in soft melancholy among atmospheric synths. The opening title track, too, finds a sublime, twilit space marked by acoustic guitar and double bass. In sharp sonic contrast but just as exemplary of Rueslåtten’s talents is penultimate “Øye for øye”, a sparse, hard-edged blues number in which Rueslåtten takes on a more menacing tone as she self-harmonizes.
In short, Rueslåtten’s singing is consistent throughout. Most other aspects of
Sørgekåpe are a little more erratic. Strongest at its most dreamlike, the album is unfortunately peppered throughout with country-pop sounds that never quite reach the level of elevation they need to to get past the point of being radio-friendly clichés. “Svever” has particularly overproduced twangs to it. Meanwhile, “Månen lyser ned” goes in the opposite direction, a rather unmemorable ballad that once again serves as a clunky vehicle for Rueslåtten’s wonderful voice. “Blind” falls into this same trap later, while “Alt brenner nå” brings back the twang and pairs it with chords and chorus that are just a little too cloying in their resoluteness. Even on “Øye for øye”, an otherwise engaging song, the guitars are glaring in their attempt to add grit and come off sounding insincere.
Where Sørgekåpe errs is in thinking Rueslåtten — or at least her band — needs to push harder to get to the desired depth. That is simply not the case. Kari Rueslåtten has a voice that speaks quite literally for itself, and the control over it to project a whole spectrum of tones and colors. Over open space, she blooms; rigid structures only obscure her primary interest, burying it under a sheen of production. The tracks here that work are the ones that build a simple foundation. The ones that do not tend to wall her in. Sørgekåpe reflects patterns of overthinking. But it also has wonderful moments, plenty of them, full of shadow and nuance, and these are undoubtedly perfect spaces in which Rueslåtten can thrive.