Still from "Stay Tuned" video

The Riddle in the Middle of Nowhere: Anja Garbarek’s ‘Smiling and Waving’

Impossibly Norwegian in style and substance, Anja Garbarek's Smiling and Waving describes the most ordinary lives lost in the voids of the most extraordinary riddles.
Anja Garbarek
Smiling & Waving

Coolly detached and ultra-mysterious, Norway’s Anja Garbarek has remained quiet these past ten years or so. Her last effort, 2006’s Briefly Shaking, won the critical acclaim of critics in both her home country and abroad, edging her further toward the wider reaches of stardom and out from the shadows of obscurity. But just as quickly as she began to emerge, she burrowed back into the darkness of anonymity.

Such is the attraction of Garbarek, whose strange and darkly piquant abstractions on sound have made her a curio of pop music for the past 25 years. Her first all-Norwegian language album, 1992’s Velkommen Inn, was a funk-inflected pop album full of fret-bass riffs and bluesy vocalizing. It heralded a new talent, but much of Garbarek’s presence then was noted for her associations with a slightly more famous Garbarek, her musician father Jan — whose esoteric jazz compositions have been capturing imaginations around the world since the late ’60s.

Velkommen Inn shared very little of Garbarek’s father’s preoccupation with a kind of Nordic spiritualism. Instead, the album went for a straightforward pop approach that ultimately left the singer-songwriter disappointed with its limited creative boundaries. In 1996, she would tap Marius de Vries, a producer who has worked with the likes of Björk, to help her create the fascinating otherworld that would become Balloon Mood, an album that the Norwegian press would later name as one of the most influential Norwegian albums ever made.

Balloon Mood was a work full of chopped hip-hop loops, jazz breaks and weirdly skewed pop melodies which coalesced to create a Scandinavian dusk of eerie love songs. It was also Garbarek’s first English-language album and her lyrics had an oddly pronounced Nordic inflection, with phrasings that were turned and bent by a treatment dreamlike and almost surreal. The album earned plaudits in her native Norway and, with a wider accessibility made by a distribution deal through BMG Records, the rest of the world as well. Garbarek would land high profile features in Dazed and Confused magazine (earning the cover story) and write-ups in Q Magazine, but it all came to nothing, worldwide success slipping just inches from her fingers.

Years later the singer-songwriter would return to the studio for what, to date, may be her most realized artistic achievement. Working alongside Mark Hollis of Talk Talk and Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, Garbarek would begin writing and recording the epically-designed opus Smiling and Waving, an unequivocal statement of Nordic culture in song.

Unlike the busy designs of Garbarek’s surrounding efforts Velkommen Inn, Balloon Mood and Briefly Shaking, Smiling and Waving lies like an undisturbed, glacial stretch of impenetrable ice. Minimalist in form and execution, her 2001 third release opts for the orchestration of strings and brass, leaving the electronic noodling of her past work, for the most part, to the further reaches of the backdrop.

Garbarek’s storytelling approach is a mysterious design which seems to come from an indeterminate space. With no beginning or end in narrative structure, all sentiment is presented from the hollows of a void, her lyrics appearing more like snippets from the passages of an unknown short-story. On opening number “Her Room”, the weirdness of her lyric proliferates in the eerie, yawning of orchestral strings. A double-tracked vocal sings “I am in her room/it’s I who live here now/I don’t know how I got here/There’s this man who comes every night…” It may be the recollection of a nightmare, but Garbarek pivots the narrative in the swelling midst of a string arrangement so that it projects a manifestation of either anxiety or desire. When the orchestra levels out to a bare hiss of clicking percussion and electronic ripples, the narrative reforms and circles back to deliver a closing even more disturbing than the preceding account would suggest.

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Garbarek’s stories are like icebergs that float down the wide expanse of the sea; detached from any context which would give them a sense of chronology and structure, they are narratives in and of themselves, leaving the listener only the musical cues to tease out whatever mysteries these vignettes contain. Smiling and Waving is an album of middles, where the absence of an opening and closing leaves only the second act in which a mysterious action has been committed.

Such is the case with “The Gown”, in which a young suitor named Robby is implored to fashion a gown for the singer. Under a shuddering drumbeat and coiling woodwinds, stuffed animals and desolate gardens are invoked before the coda of an Indian raga rings distantly in the air by the song’s end. What this all means is anyone’s guess, but there is the cool calm of Nordic judgment here, a sort of detached rationale which observes the action with contained and cordoned-off emotion.

As if to comment on the very nature of this storytelling approach, Garbarek forges the introspection with the self-referential “Spin the Context”, at once a weird murder-mystery (a second-parter of “Her Room”, which takes place after the murder but before the resolution) and a document on the process of processing emotion in song. A wondrously strange drama of searching woodwinds and probing violins signals the dangers in following the trail of either the suppressed emotions of dormant love or a murderer. Radio static filters in the background and Garbarek is perhaps tuning in to hear the one song that identifies her unnameable emotion ––or else she is waiting to hear of any more leads on a yet unclosed case.

Norway is never directly referenced throughout the album. Yet the wide breadth of its expansive and unobstructed beauty, the blue fjords, crystal glaciers and peaked, lonely mountains are distant images that border these narratives of strange, uncoordinated lives. Garbarek’s phrasings here reflect what many North Americans have come to identify with much of Nordic musical culture (whether those reflections be erroneous or not): minimal, clipped and intangible expressions of emotion, encapsulated in a few lines, strung together with economical practice.

Stretching those expressions to spans that are astronomical, perhaps extraterrestrial, “Stayed Tuned”, the leading single off Smiling and Waving, transports the Nordic nuances to the unearthly spectacles of the aurora lights. Promising “there is more to come”, the catchphrase of American leisure, the words are intoned as though they resonate from a place of horror. Under the cooled ellipses of swelling strings, the implied threat of danger becomes increasingly heavy. It’s a love song, a pleading to a faraway lover who is beckoned to from the hopeless depths of despair. But, in its narrative of a murderous reverse, it’s also the chilling scenario of a woman held captive in a dark underground space.

More riddles are spread abound on “You Know”, in which people are tailed down the mysterious rabbit holes to their peculiar underworlds. In this case, a cheating wife implores her none-the-wiser husband to guess where she disappears to every morning. A humorously sly appropriation of a Wind in the Willows melody emerges as oboes slip and curve around the orchestral slides, transferring the innocence of the tune into something far more nefarious. Taunting a lover (or a husband) with the intimation of infidelity, Garbarek glosses a cool, spare melody with the smiling eye of contempt: “Did I tell you where I went this morning?/Did I tell you where I’ve been all day?”

Infidelities happen all the time, but here the singer makes it sound like murderous assault and the paisley designs of woodwinds have never sounded more cruel in a pop format such as this one.

Ramping up the momentum with “Big Mouth”, a brittle drum n’ bass shuffle with jazz fingerings, Garbarek expends language in the rushing streams of consciousness so that the semantic fragments barely hang together. She’s having a lovely day, there is a boat sailing out of her mouth, her teeth are drums… If the blistering speed of the electronic rhythms didn’t move fast enough to carry all this expression, it would surely fall through the gaping cracks in the logic here. As it stands, the song finds a mercurial balance of joy and menace.

Legendary British avant-folk artist Robert Wyatt makes an appearance on “The Diver”, on which the popular idiom “Not drowning, but waving” (culled from Stevie Smith’s poem of the same name) is based. The song tells the story of a diver making a grand dive before an audience. The ruthless irony and humour here is that he cannot swim. The eerie calm and exchange between Garbarek and Wyatt, who alternate between perspectives of the audience and diver, is relayed with chilling detachment. Framed within a stationary space of emotion, the song feels as though it should be a painting, a story depicted with lines drawn in simple, fluid colour. Yet the story is sung – and with the same Nordic composure that is the preserve of Tarjei Vesaas and Stig Dagerman novels.

Toying again with rhythm and tempo, “That’s All”, a near hip-hop tumble of softly bristling static and muffled drum beats, is led, once again, by the minimal melody of a woodwind. From the low hum of white noise emerges yet another mystery, this time of a man rising from the depths of an ocean and crawling toward a nondescript building of some sort, seeking help.

Though much of Smiling and Waving is a spare, minimal affair, “And Then” expands cinematically, the orchestral swells throbbing like a score in a ’30s-era melodrama film. Its sparse, barely-there narrative is pulled together like the fragments from a half-remembered dream, evaporating before any conclusions can be sourced from its non-linear logic. Whatever elements remain from this dissolve are the album’s final vestiges of communication.

“It Seems We Talk” isn’t anything but air, a strange non-entity that manages to disturb, if only slightly, the emotions lying deep beneath a listener’s calm. As if to capitalize on this effect, the final page of the album’s liner notes features nothing but what is either a zero or the Norwegian letter Ø on a blank field of white space. It might be a statement on the album’s enigmatic narrative as a whole; do the songs add up to a larger and complete story, a mysterious sum that produces an explicable, solvable whole? Or does the figure simply represent a cold and incontestable end, a levelling out to an indisputable, utter blank?

Garbarek would return to her eerily puzzling tales of murder and missing persons with the electro-whimsy that was Briefly Shaking in 2006, this time building her blood-cold love stories on a foundation of heavy electronic beats. It would be an album worlds away from the starkly minimalist Smiling and Waving, with stronger pop leanings and structures falling a little more on the side of convention.

Smiling and Waving received the Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammy) in 2001, for the “Open Class” category; a category, presumably, for the non-categorical. It seems a fitting win for an album which belongs neither here nor there, one that hovers just below the larger mystery it appears to refer to — and just above the grasp of those who try to solve it.