Dust is that stuff that makes you sneeze. It gets in your eyes, covers your shelves, and is a general nuisance. It’s what happens to all of us when we die. Dust is also that magical element in the air that dances and glistens in the sun. Marla Hansen opens her new release (her first in 12 years) with the title song about “Dust”. The lyrics are cryptic. Hansen sings them in a high, breathy voice that seems to reenact blowing the dust around in some strange way. She elongates vowels and lisps through consonants. That may be because Hansen has settled in Berlin and now sings English with a German inflection, but that oversimplifies the aesthetic effect Hansen consciously creates. This track and the album as a whole shimmers and sparkles like dust in the bright light.
While Hansen’s voice is at the forefront, the words operate as sounds more than lyrics and can be hard to decipher because of how they are articulated. Hansen’s primarily a violist and violinist in addition to being a singer and composer. She uses serial repetitions to keep the music flowing, whether she is plucking the strings or bowing them. Sometimes the instruments blend in and harmonize with her singing and other times the musical arrangements ornament and accentuate what’s going on. The is a formal beauty to the results. Hansen is joined by synth player Barbara Morgenstern, drummer Andi Haberi, and multi-talented session players Taylor Savvy, Knox Chandler, Christian Biegi.
Like the work of musicians Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond, with whom she has accompanied in the past, Hansen’s material suggests higher states of spiritual consciousness. The song titles are terse—six of the eight are one word (i.e., “Path”, “Trace”, “Rare”) and the two others are simple as well (“Of Us All”, “One Step Up”). The intent is to create a mood more than tell a story. “What if I break / I always break”, she sings several times on “Break” and then ambiguously continues with the phrase “in two” or “into” as a way of setting the tone. Hansen never explains whether she is fracturing into pieces or forcibly entering someplace new or doing both at the same time. The song suggests multiple interpretations. The ambiance is more important than the literal definition of terms. The song flows without a break and simply fades into a quiet finish.
This tranquility functions to give the entire record a cohesive feel. The songs stream and drift internally and stream into each other. Even the loudest moments seem restrained, such as on the closing cut “Expected”, where Hansen raises the volume but never resorts to straining or shouting. She sings about finding what she anticipated as if something was surprising about the ordinary. It’s a lovely sentiment, but Hansen takes things a step further by not revealing what she has learned. The song and record end with her no longer knowing what was expected—and a repetition of the phrase “It’s my…” without ever revealing my what. She just knows it’s hers. Like the dust that surrounds us, we may not its source but can still appreciate its fine particulate nature.