When naming an album as grandiosely and specifically as Silje Nes has with Opticks, you might expect her to have some opulent concept to prop it up, drawing on stories of light and its diffraction. Also, given that Sir Isaac Newton based his work of the same name on his many experiments with mirrors and light, you might legitimately assume that Nes might be as fearless. If so, then prepare to be a little disappointed. As it turns out, the Newtonian spirit of tempting fortune and playing around was better represented by Nes’s 2007 debut, Âmes Room, a collection of songs primarily concerned with creating tones and melodies with the help of any tool at her disposal. Raw, droning electronics were altered with tender melodies, or little snatches of inconsistent pieces of (possibly) unfinished ideas. Âmes Room was a debut in all the meanings of the word: undeniably experimental, slightly naïve, and beautifully pure in its uncompromising attitude towards unchained songwriting.
For Opticks, Nes decided to work differently, in a more conventional way, and as such the sounds are considerably more polished. That’s all well and good but the edges are left blunt; the contrasts in the songs are somehow weaker; everything is so polite. The first few listens to Opticks unveil a number of cute melodies that are easy to love, but also easy to forget. They flow through the musical ecology with delicate docility but aren’t able to evolve into anything new; Nes rarely demands that these songs give in to something grander or louder, nor does she require them to halt their surreal flowing and step into reality.
‘Levitation’ is perhaps the best example of her approach to Opticks. For the first few minutes, Nes levitates in a vacuum of unclear location between subconsciousness and coma, her words undecipherable but not uncanny or mysterious – they simply seem irrelevant to this obscure musical happening. Then, halfway through the song, it finally evolves into a cacophonous drone, multiplied by drums, cymbals and mouth organ that generate a spark of excitement. But the climax is unstable and after a while the song becomes even more subtle that the tender near-silence it was born from.
Such lack of direction and an absence of climax is a syndrome of half the album’s songs. Take ‘The Shades’, for example, a song built around an echoing guitar line and Nes’s repetitive vocals. Sounds pleasant enough, right? But they are stunted and inflexible; they just exist and don’t move. Such drowsy and monotonous inclusions then devalue the beauty of the album’s better-evolved songs, of which first single ‘Crystals’ is the most catchy and approachable. Here, strings play delicate pizzicatos and staccatos that make the song sound playful and carefree while subtle electronics in the background and airy glockenspiel build a straightforward atmosphere of spontaneous joy that springs from one simple point of harmony.
Another peak on Opticks comes right at the start with ‘The Grass Harp’. Though its repetitive introduction of a single guitar tone initially sounds quite dull, as the whole melody sweeps around that tone it seems as if we’re hearing and present in the story of the song’s composition. Like Camille’s ‘Le fil’, the tone persists through every part of the song, from the simple beginning augmented by guitar and Nes’s hum to the obscure electronics that sound like a broken recording of the sea’s tides and onto the marvellous cello that makes the song more emotive and complex. It probably helps, too, that ‘The Grass Harp’ features one of the album’s most concrete lyrics, where Nes sings of “our ways are growing together, just you and me, all apart,” and we get some fragment of her romantic and more understandable soul.
After all this, closer ‘Ruby Red’ is Nes’s most traditional song to date, and sounds as if it could be the epilogue to some blue story. She asks herself “Are we…?” during the whole outro, leaving it up to the listener to wonder what Nes would yearn to be. The answer won’t come, and although it feels just right that some things remain a mystery, it’s a weakness that typifies Opticks as a whole. Nes sings abstract words about waters and ice, about how “branches will take care of us”, but ultimately these are just cut and paste images bound together only by the fact that they are on the same album.
Unintentionally, Nes summarises Opticks quite succinctly in the first paragraph of ‘Symmetry Of Empty Space’, singing “trembling colours, pictures, all.” Her voice is tender, the arrangements are pretty, but there’s no vibrations, no direction, and the listener is privvy to only one or two moments of musical triumph or lyrical jewel. Without them what’s left is just whispery, shivering perceptions of Nes’s chilly sadness.
[FatCat; September 13, 2010]