May 29, 2013
Ask Embla, ‘Northern Light’ (Album Review)
One of the best pop records of the year is currently topping the charts in Norway — but you probably haven’t heard about it yet.
Ask Embla is the pairing of two incredible songwriters: Arnthor Birgisson and Ina Wroldsen, both of whom are responsible for penning tracks for some of our favorite pop stars over the past decade.
Wroldsen, known as the unofficial sixth member of The Saturdays, has penned a majority of the group’s output, including “If This Is Love,” “Up” and “Work” from Chasing Lights, “Forever Is Over” “Ego” and “One Shot” from Wordshaker, “Higher” and “Karma” from Headlines and “Notorious,” “Faster” and “White Lies” for On Your Radar. (Basically, all the amazing ones.) She’s also crafted smashes for several other artists—from Samantha Mumba to The Wanted to, of course, Britney‘s almighty Femme Fatale bonus track (and Kylie‘s favorite!), “He About To Lose Me.”
Arnthor Birgisson’s legacy as a songwriter dates back even further, responsible for a plethora of pop cuts — everything from Jessica Simpson‘s “Irresistible” to Janet Jackson‘s “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” to Shontelle‘s “Impossible” to Britney’s Circus ballad, “Out From Under.” (Oh, and Stephanie McIntosh‘s ever-amazing, Summer Heights High-approved “Mistake” too!)
The duo first debuted with their early material back in late 2011, when they released a handful of demos on Soundcloud, including “Winter” and “Einn.” It was love at first play.
Two years later, and the tracks have since been polished and remastered along with a slew of others, resulting in Northern Light, a collection of superbly crafted Scandinavian pop (the world’s finest purveyors of pop, in case anyone had any doubt) packed full of masterfully crafted hooks, searing synth-pop production and melodies that would likely send any pop starlet shooting to the top of the charts.
Now, however, it’s Ina and Arnthor themselves who find themselves sitting comfortably at #1.
Unlike much of what they’ve penned for pop stars in the past, Northern Light is a more complex record thematically, exploring complex relationship struggles, metaphorical battles between darkness and light and lots of deathspeak. It’s heavy stuff. So, if you’re expecting an “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” banger…err, don’t.
“Cry Baby,” one of the album’s shining standouts, is also one of the album’s most haunting: It’s sort of like Ask Embla’s take on today’s YOLO-tastic pop, but with a more sobering message: “Nothing here will last forever (Cry baby, cry baby, cry) / We come and leave alone / Cry your little tears, ’cause this is such a crazy place.” Hey, I’ll take a beautifully sung dose of vaguely Buddhist teachings about impermanence over a drunk-pop club anthem about poppin’ bottles ’til we die any day.
As is to be expected from a pairing of two songwriters, production takes a backseat to phenomonal songcraft. Nowhere is that more apparent than “Einn,” the album’s most bone-chilling ballad. Backed by ambient strings and, later on, a marching drum, Ina delivers a cripplingly emotional vocal, resulting in a song fit for a funeral: “There will be time, and time will pass / It’s only pain that makes it last, because the time has none to fear/ Like all of us, it’s only us.” Lump in throat.
“Winter,” a pulsating favorite from the early 2011 demos, is bolstered with even bigger club throb in its finished form. But much like Robyn‘s sad disco, there’s no celebrating on the dance floor. “How can this illusion fight when everything’s dying around us, all around us / Here comes winter!” Of course, there’s that uniquely Scandi lyrical quality that’s just slightly off, but in a brilliant way: “Just like a knife, I know he’s hiding in my ribcage,” Ina aches.
There’s a spooky quality to a majority of the songs too — including the moody electronic stings of “The Haunting” and the warped waltz of “Grave” — which means the record will likely take on new life when the air starts turning crisp once again, much like how Lana Del Rey‘s Born To Die, which was released at the end of January last year, plays much differently during the summertime (sadness.) Even the album’s lone cover — a sparse, beautiful acoustic take on Fun.‘s “We Are Young” — inspires a shiver or two.
“Wires,” a dark, piano-led 21st century ode to technology-induced heartbreak: “I got wires under my skin / I got wires interconnecting my memories, they keep rewinding,” Ina cries out across the slow-skipping electro-R&B beat. The pain is palpable — it’s the kind of broken ballad Kelly Clarkson could be crooning.
“Fathers Eyes,” their first single from the campaign last last year, is also currently topping the Norwegian charts at the moment — and rightfully so: “I know that no one seems to understand what I see / But I see with my father’s eyes,” Ina achingly croons above a stinging electro beat. In a post-Loreen “Euphoria” world, the moody midtempo makes perfect sense once it comes pouring out the speakers.
Northern Light could have easily been a collection of obvious pop star B-side discards, or a left-of-center venture into difficult and experimental territory for the sake of separating themselves from their usual Top 40-friendly pop output.
Instead, the two managed not only to craft a set of undeniably solid pop records, but an array of tunes with a certain depth, sophistication and lasting sadness that sets themselves apart from the majority of their fantastic output.
Northern Light is annoyingly only available on iTunes Norway or CDON right now, but hopefully, enough interest will lead to a global release in the very near future. Track it down — it’s worth the struggle to find.
Northern Light was released on May 6. (iTunes Norway)