8/10 Anja Plaschg’s impressive and aptly titled 2009 debut Lovetune For Vacuum documented an intense desire to escape from her teenage sorrows and fears into a world of her own making, pitched almost schizophrenically against the subconscious knowledge that such a freedom is impossible. As much as we might sometimes want to escape ourselves, if we wish to continue life then our internal nightmares must be overcome – or at the very least accepted. Soap&Skin, her imaginary artistic persona, knew all of that and wrapped these distorted and incredibly intense emotions into delicate piano-led and electronically manipulated ballads highly influenced by the Central European folklore tradition of songwriting.
Despite the wildly experimental nature of Lovetune For Vaccuum, the album charted highly in Plaschg’s native Austria and won the praise of hordes of critics throughout Europe. But just as Plaschg seemed to be within reach of taking her destiny into her own hands, her father died unexpectedly and happiness once again seemed to be fated to elude her. The eight recordings on Narrow capture Plaschg’s state of mind during this period and her subsequent move to Italy. Played and produced entirely on her own, it’s perhaps no surprise that the result is even darker and more oppressive than her debut.
Narrow‘s grievous ballads of loss and lack of life’s sense are spearheaded by the unflinchingly titled ‘Vater’ (‘Father’). Sung in her native German, what initially sounds like a eulogy to a loved person turns out to be a deeply unsettling cry upon the greater absence of love in the void after her father’s death. One of her finest compositions to date, Plaschg proves unafraid to elevate the song to a grand finale, scoring her own funeral ‘band’ to imbue her already dramatic piano-and-vocal performance with uneasy grandiosity.
Things become more fervent and stifling with penultimate track ‘Boat Turns Toward The Port’, Narrow‘s ultimate expression of deep distress with delicate harmonic progressions and Plaschg’s vocals rising to new and painful heights. Elsewhere, the waltz-like interlude ‘Lost’ brings to mind the Austrian tendency for melodies that edge along the division between sugary and sour, and lead single ‘Wonder’ seems sewn from the same dark-blue cloth of calm, sepulchral suffering.
Luckily, Plaschg doesn’t rely solely on grief-stricken balladry to make her point. ‘Deathmental’ hits upon a third dimension with its depiction of another kind of pain, sonic and aggressive with militant electronic manipulation and synthetic beats reminiscent of Lovetune For Vacuum‘s ‘DDMMYYYY’. Plaschg’s conquering voice, which often sounds as though she’s attempting to swallow her own tongue, is cold here, and dominates with accusatory lyrics like “Stop faking suffering like a child.”
It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that she sings these words to herself, but regardless of the truth of the matter ‘Deathmental’ is a convincing expression of what binds Plaschg to her troubles. Similarly gripping is the cover of Europop classic ‘Voyage Voyage’, a hit in the mid-’80s for Desireless that is morphed here into a schmaltzy spectacle with piano and strings. Plaschg sounds as though she’s beaming in her vocal from a very distant place, and the song becomes a voyage of its own – even if it’s just a momentary venture in the name of liberation out from under her turmoil.
Narrow ends with the martial intensity and sonic industrialism of ‘Big Hand Nails Down’. With its pulsating drum-machine beats and rallying harmonies, it sounds like another invitation into battle but the fight is “emptied by words” come the song’s resolution. Narrow‘s contrasting moods may be confusing, even disturbing, to some, but Plaschg combines her antagonistic elements into a coherent and symbiotic relationship – albeit a murky and uncomfortably intimate one.