August 2009

Arts & Letters

Setting Herself Apart

By Robert Forster
Sarah Blasko's 'As Day Follows Night'

She’s a restless soul, Sarah Blasko, three albums in her recording career done: one in Los Angeles, one in Auckland, and now her latest from Stockholm. Each has been shaped by its location. From LA came the neat, crafted pop of her debut, The Overture & the Underscore (2004); from Auckland there was the nautically themed swing and drama of What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have (2006); and in Stockholm – well, she recorded in the same studio as ABBA, the Swedish affinity for jazz is noticeable in the upright bass and percussion, and there is the talent of producer Björn Yttling, which is the obvious reason why Blasko was tromping through the snow in February and March this year. Yttling is both a member and producer of Peter, Björn and John, a Swedish pop band most famous for their left-field worldwide hit ‘Young Folks’ in 2006, a song that, besides featuring a whistling solo, impressed with its stripped-back mixture of groove and unusual natural instrumentation. The engagement of Yttling is another very smart move, in a career built on astute and brave musical decisions.

At 32, the Sydney born and based Blasko finds herself in the enviable but also difficult position of sustaining a successful career in a shrinking album-sales market and a music scene that thrives on new faces and novelty. So far she has played it by instinct, with eye-catching album sleeves and clever videos, and generally conducted herself through the publicity and gimmick-driven maze of the music business with dignity and intelligence. As such she cuts a wilful and unusual figure, one who baffles those focused on the traditional short-term methods of career advancement, but her approach should ensure a long and satisfying career if she wishes to stay in music. Alongside the quality and seriousness of her work, and perhaps linked to its unorthodoxy, is the pleasure of her media presence; especially her interviews, which go against the normal line of shamefaced promotion and blind hope that dominates the pop-culture space. Blasko squirms under ARIA nominations and is willing to admit or ponder mistakes in print; it is an endearing trait, showing someone who is both honest and in constant self-reflection, qualities that abound in As Day Follows Night (2009).

The album is a triumph. It is one of those breakthrough records that only when it arrives and you hear the progression in spirit and song do you see the potential that was always there, just waiting for the artist to make the jump. And Blasko has made a leap. This is the best group of songs she has ever put together, her voice has never sounded so good, and her lyrics are divine. It’s almost a shame that ‘All I Want’ doesn’t start the album – the slower curtain-opener ‘Down On Love’ fulfils that role, as tentative mood songs have done on all her albums – because the first flush of all these developments is held in this great single. The initial realisation is that the veil has dropped: gone is the crimped, at times awkwardly compressed style of lyric-writing in favour of the elegant and enigmatic statement of the obvious. So “Between love we make divide, navigate / Confusion translates what you can’t explain” from The Overture & the Underscore becomes “I don’t want another lover / So don’t keep holding out your hands / There’s no room beside me / I’m not looking for romance”. This is not to imply that the change has been sudden or unexpected. What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have was a transitional record, already showing a loosening of the lyrical knot and a preference for an adventurous sound driven by natural instrumentation; As Day Follows Night drives all the changes.

The first one may have come about while Blasko was writing the score for the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet in 2008. An admitted confidence-building exercise for her songwriting, it also allowed her time to compose on the backstage piano between nightly vocal performances. It is tempting to draw further conclusions from her long exposure to Shakespeare’s play. Is the dithering, self-absorbed hero an influence on the hand-wringing, does-he-or-doesn’t-he-love-me central character of the album? Is “I’m finally mad, like a rush of blood to the head” in ‘Lost & Defeated’ a touch of Ophelia? And how far is Stockholm from Denmark, anyway? Nonetheless, for a songwriter preparing her first entirely self-composed set of songs for an all-important third album, Blasko has written a wonderfully melodic and diverse collection. Enter the producer Yttling, whom Blasko sought out, her admiration triggered as much perhaps by his production for the fine Scottish group Camera Obscura as by his work with his own band. Blasko and Yttling are a perfect match. He has fashioned a monster sound from the sparse ingredients of drums and bass and piano, building them big and full enough to carry many a verse and chorus with only Blasko’s vocal on top. The production adds much to this album; outside of her singing and songs, it is the star – a thoughtful, delightful, sonic field of sparse instrumentation that has been expertly recorded.

The album’s 12 songs tell a story. On What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have, nautical motifs, involving ships, storms, vessels, oceans and tides, were explicit in the lyrics and at times lacked some subtlety as metaphors for love and its troubles. On As Day Follows Night, the album’s theme is far more skilfully embedded. Most of the songs revolve around a relationship involving three people. The narrator professes her love to a man who, it seems, can’t leave another woman, despite her best efforts to cajole him to remain by her side. The woman is Day and the man is Night, and the album’s title alludes to their tangle. ‘All I Want’, with its magnificent stoicism, seems outside this circle of songs, but on every other number, from the opening track, ‘Down On Love’, where a case for happiness is put forward (“When all your life you’ve waited for someone to understand / To wake you up and speak your name”), to the demands of ‘No Turning Back’ (“I’ve put my heart right on the line / Now it’s time my love, it’s time”), to the dawning of truth in ‘I Never Knew’ (“But I never knew it would hurt like this / To let someone go against my wishes”), the dance of euphoria, disillusionment, pride and pain is charted. A resolution of sorts is found in ‘Night & Day’, the last song, where an early chorus of “Bitter night and a broken day” blooms in the record’s final line to “Such a lovely night and a beautiful day”. If it sounds overdone, it’s not; the weave of night and day and all the meaning that can be drawn from these two words is strung very gracefully through the album’s tracks.

But there is also a thrill-seeking giddiness to the album, as if to register that in the throes of uncertain love there are terrific highs to mix with the lows. Yttling’s production helps out, pouncing on rhythms and always up for fun with weird instrument choices and melody lines. And Blasko goes with it too, stoking up songs such as ‘We Won’t Run’ and ‘Hold On My Heart’ with big choruses that have a joy and a sense of abandonment that she has never achieved before. Leading the charge is her voice; recalling a sly 12-year-old one minute and Peggy Lee the next, it’s high in the mix and as stripped of previous affectation as her lyrics. The mood is supported by the album’s recording approach, which gives the vocal performances a first-take freshness that is backed by the live-in-the-studio feel of the musicianship. Songs don’t fade but rather wind down naturally, often with a lyrical denouement at the finish. This could have been a much heavier album but instead it skids and skates, glockenspiels ring, percussion knocks and cracks, and Blasko, while not at peace, seems strong enough to dispense herself such cool and central wisdom as “Can’t please somebody, can’t please somebody else, until you’ve learnt to look after yourself”.

Love has never been an easy game on any of Blasko’s albums. There is real pain on As Day Follows Night and it is perhaps no coincidence that this is the first record of hers not to have the lyrics printed. Whether the kick to the heart was bigger this time, or whether she now has the power to transform it into greater art, is impossible to say. It has inspired a remarkable set of songs and, being the artist that she is – and great artists search and travel for a place to nail their feelings – she found a collaborator in Stockholm to help her make a wonderful record. A classic, in fact. Give her the ARIA now.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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