In music and film, Sweden is painted as a country of wintry magic; a fairytale land of blanketed mountains and icy lakes. On Swedish singer-songwriter Anna von Hausswolff’s new album Ceremony, however, this region is conjured through a darker, almost ghostly lens. As the follow-up to Hausswolff’s beautiful piano-pop debut, Singing from the Grave, Ceremony builds upon the former album’s fascination with death and the afterlife, but is a much more ambitious record, inspired by the grandeur of film scores, and bringing a classical aesthetic to pop music.
Hausswolff’s second offering has already achieved critical acclaim in its homeland; nominated for two Swedish Grammys, the 2012 Nordic Music Prize, and bewitching native listeners with its darkly romantic verse. It is a highly personal album, recorded at the Annedalskyrkan cathedral in Hausswolff’s hometown Gothenburg and written about subjects close to the pianist’s heart, such as the recent death of her grandfather. She also structures Ceremony around her affinity for the church organ; an instrument that is as magical as it is austere. Because of its focus on death, lazy journalists will describe Ceremony as a maudlin album, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Starting with the grand “Epitaph of Theodor”, the album soars through thirteen dazzling songs fixated on the passage into a second life, a subject the young artist confronts head on, and analyses through her cinematic, medieval-tinted compositions.
Ceremony is a richly layered album. Influenced by the art of film scores, the record is highly orchestral and it comes as little surprise that Hausswolff is studying for a degree in architecture because each of her songs is intricate and detailed, effortlessly weaving transcendent vocals with the organ’s vibrant textures. Under her gifted hands, the use of the organ is revelatory, swelling across the album, and summoning feelings of both malevolence and joy. Alongside her use of more obscure instrumentation, Hausswolff refuses to comply with the traditional methods of pop music, and scraps ideas of the typical verse and chorus. Instead, her songs are beautifully formless, like the enigmatic “Mountains Crave”, which revolves around dreamy wanderings about love, and the stark battle cry of “Red Sun”. And though the lands she illustrates feel vast, such as the mountains and the echoing cathedral, the album still feels intimate as Hausswolff expresses the quiet emotions of curiosity and longing.
Despite its fixation on death, there is a sense of survival about the album. Hausswolff may photograph as a wide-eyed, doll-limbed naïf, but there is a fierce intelligence and buoyant strength that shines through Ceremony. As many critics have pointed out, the album shimmers with the mystical-pop legacy of Kate Bush, but there are also hints of Tori Amos’s bruised debut Little Earthquakes, and Bjork’s frosty Verspertine. Much of this can be attributed to the musician’s vocal range. Across Ceremony, Hausswolff’s voice ripples like the water at the bottom of a well, at times delicate, but always profound. She all but snarls her lyrics over the tremulous crescendo of “Deathbed” whilst breathlessly fluttering her vowels over the symphonic “Ocean”. Likewise, her lyrics are simple, but blazoned with emotional depth. The repetition of “I see him run away from me” on “Goodbye” is heartbreaking, and her admission that “it’s hard for us young ones” on the crystalline “Liturgy of Light” reveals a fragile discontent.
Hausswolff writes beautiful music. It is the kind of music that evokes feelings of wonderment and will be a revelation for many of its listeners, though hopefully her classical sensibilities won’t just appeal to a niche audience, as her talent and poetic ear deserve to be appreciated by many. Difficult not to sing its praises, Ceremony is a sublime album from beginning to end, richly nuanced, gorgeously composed, and an example of baroque pop at its finest.