Without going into too much detail, when I was 17 I had my heart broken. I was a shy kid who never amounted to much, especially romantically. I was the apple of no one’s eye in high school, and even though I was approaching adulthood, the opposite sex was still very much a mysterious force to me. I did befriend one girl though, on a band’s forum on the internet, where we developed a great friendship that soon blossomed into us confessing our feelings for each other. She lived some 250 miles away though, so all our talking was done online and through text messages, and for some years we never met in person.
That looked to change when she told me she was coming to my part of the world. Excitement ensued, as you might have guessed. We planned to go see the Cribs and enjoy the sights of the city I lived in, amongst other things. Months, days, and soon hours passed before the time came to finally meet in person. I arranged to meet her in a shopping mall, but after waiting for what was too long for any person to wait, she never turned up. I still went to that gig though, mostly because I paid for tickets and, having little personal income at the time, wasn’t about to waste them. Another friend of mine was there, and it took her matter-of-fact words and advice to make me realise that this girl never came to visit me at all, and that I had been lied to.
I didn’t enjoy that gig much, mostly because I was too distracted, hoping on the possibility she was at the venue and I just had to find her in the crowd. (She wasn’t.) My friend left the gig early to catch a train while I walked home alone, feeling the size of a peanut and like I had the IQ of one too; anyone in their right mind would have seen this deception coming. I took solace in music as I walked, lingering on Two Gallants’ “Waves of Grain” and, in particular, the White Stripes’ “Forever For Her (Is Over for Me),” from their album, Get Behind Me Satan. That latter song rang something deep within me, what with its unabashed lyrical focus. “I blew it / And If I knew what to do, then I‘d do it,” goes Jack White on the track, a quiver in his voice. For some reason I felt like I was at fault amidst all this heartache, like I’d done something to drive this girl away or make her want to lie to me. Also, it was raining, just to make the whole situation more sickeningly cinematic.
This memory came back to me the other week when I was listening to Mikko Joensuu’s latest album, Amen 2. There’s a track at the centre of it called “What Have I Done,” which rings out with a direct feeling of aching that I found in “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)” all those years ago. “There’s a hole where there used to be the sun / I say what have I done – what have I done?,” Joensuu asks a stretching void of galloping drums and guitar fuzz. The lack of direct specificity (or, to be more particular, the feeling of specificity) in the song makes it feel wistful and aged, like the question he’s asking has been ringing out for decades. Listening to it now, I know for sure that a 17 year old me would appreciate the track – it certainly would have felt apt for the lonely walk home in the rain all those years ago.
Joensuu’s music is fitting for contemplation, though; Amen 2, which is the second instalment in a trilogy, is set on soul searching and trying to find answers and solace in the surrounding world. Joensuu spent the years leading up to the release of this trilogy “slowly coming to terms with the idea God did not exist in his mind anymore.” His songs feel hymnal and cathartic here, slow-burning torch songs for meditation. While on 2015’s Amen 1 he found a line between gospel, country, and folk, on Amen 2 he reaches out further. The majority of tracks here stretch to 8 minutes while the longest extends to some 20 minutes, spending most of its time settling to a close on extended ambient drones. No longer working with the limitation of recording with only acoustic instruments like on Amen 1, Joensuu wanders into more textural territory here, bleeding in the sounds of shoegaze and leaning towards post classical stylings.
Amen 2 makes for a quietly rich listening experience, and if you want it, a welcomingly deep one too. Joensuu’s voice is that bit forlorn and tender, but it also has a great soothing and redemptive quality to it, like the voice of a good friend who you haven’t heard from in years. Unsurprisingly Joensuu deals with heavy issues of faith and despair across the album, but he approaches them with the wide-eyed gentleness of a child seeing things clearly and without bias. “Everybody guesses but no one knows,” he repeats on “No One Knows,” questioning whatever blind faith we all believe in as drums and electrified strand of guitar fuzz hurtle him forwards. Elsewhere on opening track “Drop Me Down” he skirts the line between faith and love, confessing “It’s not you, it’s me,” detailing a breakup like it’s akin to an angel being cast down from heaven.
Joensuu, who hails from Finland, surveys his own world in his music. His songs feel self-contained but also like they are reaching out, trying to usher in an answer or an idea. On Amen 2 he caters more for extended piano ballads punctuated by strings and drones, leaving his acoustic guitar aside this time round. His voice also becomes a new feature to play with, his light croon and extended vowels sometimes lost in the mix, but only gaining an ethereal quality. On the languid “Sunshine” his voice floats about before it eventually dissolves into the atmosphere altogether while on “Dying Rain” he sounds like he has a choir of voices behind him, all bleeding into one ghostly being.
He doesn’t ignore the past either; everything in Joensuu’s world feels like it’s part of the same canon. On Amen 1 he sang “I’d give you all / If you gave me some / If you give me a spark / I’d hand you my sun,” on “I’d Give You All,” and on his new album he harks back to that, furthering the story on the graceful final track “I Gave You All.” “I gave you all and you gave me some / The spark I once had has now turned to a sun,” he laments, surrounded by piano, strings that turn into distortion, a slow march of drums, and even an organ. Whether it’s a resolution to the story or not still sounds like it’s in the air (especially as the track sours to a minor key for its ambient second half), but there’s a refreshing quality in Joensuu revisiting past ideas and characters. It shows that change is always possible, and that no sentiment is set in stone, despite it being on record.
As might be guessed from that line up of instruments mentioned, Joensuu spares no expense here – but he still manages to keep his sound reserved. Apart from the more energetic moments here, like the bass-heavy chainsaw burble of bleary-eyed, Spiritualized-like “There Used To Be A Darkness,” Joensuu never feels like he’s hammering out his piano chords or singing louder than he needs to. On the swelling crescendos of “Drop Me Down” and “Golden Age of the Lowland” he never goes over the top or sings desperately like he has to reach the heart of every listener in a stadium. Despite the scale of his music here, Joensuu often feels like he’s singing to you from the foot of a bed or while huddled in a corner at a piano.
Coming to terms with one’s lack of faith is no light subject, and suitably Amen 2 is something of a heavy listen when fully considered. It relies on tales of faith and stories of God and Jesus, but also on everyday tales of love, hope, and sadness. Joensuu has an easily understated talent in capturing all this (and all the many things in between) without convoluting his music. While there might be textures and distortion to work through here, that’s part of the process of understanding and finding clarity that extends into real life. With a buzzing head and an overwrought heart we find a simple, relatable core in the music in the form of the voice of a young man asking “what have I done?” over and over. These questions have no real answers, but they bear repeating until we find a direction to move towards. Things happen, faith is lost, and hearts break: this is life, and Amen 2 is the guide that helps us find that spark that soon hopefully becomes our sun.