Who is Ólöf Arnalds? Why isn’t she regarded in awe by all with ears? Is the world so deaf to greatness that an artist of this calibre, this breathtaking brilliance, is confined to ‘specialist’ radio stations and name-checks in the arts pages of The Guardian? She deserves so much more. Nobody, nobody in the business right now produces music quite as captivating as this Icelandic singer. Arnalds exposes the self-consciously quirky, the twee and the whimsical as frauds. It’s so refreshing to hear something so genuine, yet delivered with such a light touch. Sudden Elevation is a revelation.
Her brilliance was apparent on 2010’s Innundir Skinni, a stark but icily melodic album, sung predominantly in Scandinavian and utilising a variety of traditional instruments. Its foot in the avant-garde (not to mention a major vote of confidence) was clear in the presence of Björk on the hypnotic collaboration Surrender. Sudden Elevation, by contrast, is a much warmer affair, propelled by rich acoustic guitars and intricate, soaring harmonies. While still maintaining an idiosyncratically Nordic flavour, it’s a much gentler, emotionally affecting listen. If Innundir Skinni was a record for the winter, this album is evocative of the spring.
And so the whole album unfolds like a beautiful day, opening buoyantly on the swirling German Fields; Numbers and Names, in which she sings ‘I would rather be wrong than unloved’, is as uplifting as the dawn chorus, while the transcendent climax of lead single ‘A Little Grim’ blossoms like the sun reappearing from behind a cloud. The final tracks are mellower, like a sunset, and in the final moments the repeated refrain of ‘imperfectly perfect’ makes for a satisfying précis of this extraordinary record.
Each listen reveals further nuances. At first it’s impossible to not simply be knocked out by the aural splendour (long time producer Skúli Sverrisson surpasses himself in the creation of spellbinding sonic landscapes). Later, it’s the gnomic lyrics that catch the attention: ‘Secret backgrounds don’t belong in playgrounds’ we’re told, and Arnalds seems intent to see and embrace everything around her, her voice filled with wonder, the songs a litany of joy, bliss and, most of all, contentment. This is a very Zen record, right down to the k?an style lyric of ‘a bell that no one hears but still rings inside my head’. It could so easily have been insufferable; instead, it is touched with magic.
Sudden Elevation transcends the trappings of pop or folk music. This is a truly bewitching work of art.
Words: James Robinson