Are popular music and political theory compatible? There are legitimate reservations: pop music is perceived as the quintessential anti-intellectual art, an expressive form of immediate, indeed bodily, experience. Plus, it is, at least in its contemporary incarnation, an exemplary product of capitalism, submitted to the rules of a merciless industry which favours efficiency over exploration, experimentation and audacity.
Which does not mean that popular music can not be political. But then it has to find the right balance between aesthetics and claims, with an acute consciousness of how it is to be received. One of last year's best records, Jenny Hval's Apocalypse, girl, addressed such issues as feminism, gender, religion, health, and the intertwining of capitalism and popular culture, through the construction of little melodic tales drawing from gospel and karaoke references, and reducing the narratives and arrangements to the very core of their matter: that to free itself from unconscious ideologies, humanity might embrace these zones where distinctions tend to blur and unpredictable things can happen in the space between us.
Most of Dutch (but Oslo-based) artist Jessica Sligter's third (second under her real name) album for the excellent Norwegian label Hubro, featuring an impressive bunch of collaborators (among whom Jenny Hval for the backing vocals on a couple of tracks), deals heavily with liberalism and the discourses of economical and relational exchanges. She explicitely works from a critical perspective, something that her lyrics make sensible through great use of characterization, dialogues and quotations, which create contemporary relevant vignettes perfectly served by the music, at once epic and intimate.
Jessica Sligter's music has always been highly idiosyncratic. Her amazing previous record, Fear and the Framing (2012), eschewed easy categorizations, blurring such genres distinctions as avant-folk, drone and free-improvisation, while also exhibiting inimitable, often modal vocals. But when "Surrounds, Surrounds, Me”, the first track off A Sense of Growth, dropped last autumn on Soundcloud, it conveyed a new sense of both achievement and urgency; a balance quite uneasy to maintain.
It is one of those perfectly crafted songs, with great space and dynamics, where every aspect of the production is at the right place and serves best the progression of the narrative. It is one of those songs for which it does not feel right to draw a line between songwriting and production, as composition and soundscape are too intricate to pull apart. It is music full of details, thanks to the many textures that develop into melodic patterns (including a saxophone solo halfway through the song) and build tension around the magnificent vocals which unfold a tight and precise melody.
Jessica Sligter is inspired by Sacred Harp singing, which is noticeable in this new-found electronic context, and offers a stunning contrast to the dark edge of the track. She produced the record in Seattle together with Randall Dunn (of Sunn O))) fame), who helped her shape her already sharp vision. In that respect, the title of the record could not be more accurate. There is a sense of growth indeed in the scope of this album, which was hinted at but not fully achieved in her previous endeavours. As an album, it is very concise (only 33 minutes long), but has yet a lot to offer and certainly stands the comparison with such important recent recordings as Björk's Vulnicura (2015), Scott Walker + Sunn O)))'s Soused (2014), or These New Puritans' Field of Reeds (2013), with which it shares a similar way of melting organic (even orchestral) and digital layers of sound in a perfectly homogeneous mix.
Tracks like "Smoking Tree” and "Mercilessly Clear”, are probably the closest Sligter comes to the intensity of those albums, the unsteady drones (which combine electronic manipulations with rather unorthodox viola playing by Eyvind Kang) of the latter giving a lot of space to her dual vocals, while in the former her theatrical rendition recalls Scott Walker's declamatory way of throwing out his apocalyptic lyrics. Here the soundscape alternates between pastoral strolling (with the help of a clarinet) and bursts of noise generated by the superposition of units of sounds from disparate sources (including a memorable synth loop that come and go into the mix).
As stated by Sligter herself, for this record she worked with more "abstract sonic images”, carrying on her path towards the deconstruction of "songbased music”. This is achieved in various ways depending on each track. In "The Dream-dealer”, born out of a vocal improvisation over a simple chord pattern, the galloping drumming sustains an ever evolving melody, with even chant-like sections and sentences that burst forth through the stereo, offering many harmonic treasures along the way. In the title-track, the tempo, particularly elastic, adapts to the stuttering of the enunciation. It is music with a high compositional degree, and the closer track, "Run, Now!”, is also a complete success in that respect. The melody keeps modulating over a single chord generated by a backdrop of accordion and banjo, that reminds of (fellow Norwegian band) Bel Canto's electronic world-music turn on Shimmering, warm and bright (1992) after Geir Jenssen (Biosphere) left the band. In the chorus the multiple vocals complement each other extremely well, and the result is once again a stunning mixture of tension and space.
The only track which sounds a bit out of place is "Wherever you go”. Still a really good song, perfectly crafted and with many interesting things happening throughout, it is lighter than the rest of the album, and features a guitar solo at the end that sounds relatively predictable compared to the surprises to be found elsewhere. This is maybe the only time that the juxtaposition method, both horizontal and vertical, that runs throughout the album as a thin thread, does not carry enough tension to be completely rewarding. Which does not remove anything to the fact that it works as a pretty enjoyable ballade in its own terms.
Can popular music and political theory matter? Italian theorist Franco Berardi wrote a book a few years ago about the role and power of poetry in our time of uprising. When they are so closely related, social and aesthetic issues can operate at a level that overflows their own apparent specificity. Politics lies in every day life, in the grain, the texture of our relationships. Which is exactly where this kind of music is supposed to have some impact. Regardless of how intense it is meant to sound on record, the songs are all wrapped in a nice, melodic package that allow to identify relatively easy with the ethos, therefore the message.
Performed live it seems rougher, with the vocals more naked and surrounded by ominous drones that take their time and question their own materiality all the way into trance. With a sense of both threat, beauty and power that invites to seek for beauty and reasons to stay up.
The fact that some of these songs were born or developed out of particular commissions and collaborations is interesting to observe in that spirit, as it implies more circumstantial and residential working methods – even if they light up the personality of the artist – than the lonely inspired songwriter mythology. The song "Mercilessly Clear” was written specifically based on the science-fiction poem Aniara (from 1956) by Swedish writer Harry Martinsson, as part of a commission by Henie Onstad Kunstsenter for the opening of the exhibition "Vi lever på en stjerne” ("We live upon a star”, an exhibition dealing with the trauma of 22 July 2011), where Jessica Sligter performed with Susanna Wallumrød a couple of new tracks, including a work-in-progress version of "The Dream-dealer”. The work around this long-form poem also influenced some of the other tracks lyrically, and helped the album find its definite recorded shape. Maybe here, in the development in situ of projects open to collective input, much like what happens in the improvised music scene, lies something of the performative power of a popular music wrestling with the challenges of its time.
For all this, and much more than can be said in a short album review, Jessica Sligter is probably one of the most interesting artists to have emerged during the last decade in the field of experimental pop music. This inexhaustible new album is a considerable step ahead in an already impressive catalogue. She deserves a wider audience. May this help it grow.